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(506) 223-1327         Published Friday, Dec. 7, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 243               E-mail us
Jo Stuart
Real Estate
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montage of Christmas toys
A.M. Costa Rica montage
From $104 Roboraptor to some kind of creature to the suggestive MyScene dolls.
Where's Ghost of Christmas Past when he's needed
By Anne Clark
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

It's a sad day in a toy store when you realize you are no longer the target audience.  I suppose I should have seen this coming: I can't tell you the last time I actually saw a television commercial for toys.  Or cereal, for that matter.  I haven't heard, “Silly Rabbit, tricks are for kids!” in, like, 10 years. 

I have missed a decade's worth of commercials and was, therefore, somewhat surprised to find out that toys weren't excluded from the design boom at the turn of the millennium.  Batman and Robin are much sleeker with faces influenced by the Japanese animation aesthetic.  Legos are still great but have evolved to become even better.  Their packaging is cleaner and flashier, with more construction options and more extravagant things to build.  I hated those old primary-colored blocks, I think mostly because they were next to me once when I got really car sick.  

Action figures that speak are helpful for practicing Spanish.  I played with Nickelodeon's “Avatar” action figure series for nearly 20 minutes, mainly because the characters spoke to me in Spanish that I understood but also partly because I assumed Nickelodeon had stopped making new television series when I quit watching “David the Gnome” and “Clarissa Explains it All.”  Some kind of giant “Avatar” dog retails for 25,827 colons without tax and the action figures go for 10,853.  (That's $51 and $22)

Matchbox Cars are still around and they make a “Metropolis.”  Yes, for Superman.  14,199 colons ($28.40) and Superman's city is yours.

Has there ever before been a single product that has influenced so many markets as the iPod?  Some of the most envy-inspiring products are designed for your iPod.  Gucci and Coach make haute couture iPod cases, retailing for hundreds of dollars.  There are Barbie iPod cases for much less, and there is an entire niche market of electronic products to work with your iPod produced by companies other than Apple.  miJam has created a line of drumming, mixing and guitar pieces that attach to your MP3 player and let you accompany the music.  My Sony Walkman, circa 1994, did not allow this feature.  miJam Drummer retails for 16,805 colons ($33.60), Guitar and Mixer for 22,115 ($44.25) each.

The kids I pseudo-stalked in the San José department store were most drawn to “High School Musical” anything and “Pirates of the Caribbean” merchandise.  This goes for both genders.  I saw boys pointing at “HSM” and girls pointing to “Pirates of the Caribbean.” 

There were “HSM” character dolls with a Gabriella and Troy couple combo retailing for 26,544 colons ($53).  The “HSM” displays of cheaper items, such as key chains, I had seen two weeks ago were gone, presumably gobbled up by the voracious tween masses.  This youth attraction to “High School Musical” makes perfect sense, however.  Kids are interested in whatever seems older.  When I was 13, I read “Seventeen.”  When I was 17, I read “Cosmopolitan.”  Now that I'm 24, I read “Vogue.”  Hopefully, that's where it ends because I'm not looking forward to reading “Redbook” or “O, The Oprah Magazine.”

So why are there toy cell phones and digital cameras?  You can buy relatively cheap versions of the real thing that your kid would likely prefer.  But if you don't trust your kid, you can pick up a Disney Princess fake cell phone for 2,646 colons 
($5.29) or fake digital camera (which is really just a redesigned ViewMaster) for 3,530 colons ($7.06).

The most prominently displayed items were Roboraptors (52,205 colons or $104.40), a battery operated “fusion of technology and personality.”  The packaging claimed that the dinosaur has three distinct moods and can interact with actual people as well as with other products in the Robo-line, such as the Robosapien.  Despite the steep price, the packaging design and product claims are seductive.

The Roboraptors represent one end of the spectrum relating to interactive toys.  At the other end, there is Cold Nose Puppy, retailing for 17,513 colons ($35), that responds to your love by nuzzling you with its cold nose.  I am not that into simulated affection from machines.  Or animal secretions, for that matter, authentic or simulated.  

There are still a lot of crummy toys on the market.  Some kids, somewhere must be playing with Slinkies.  Why is the world's most site-specific toy, designed for stairs, still being made?

Educational toys are still boring.  Thanks, Mom, for all those addition workbooks that made Christmas '91 the worst ever.

Okay, who knew they still made Cabbage Patch Dolls?  I thought those were eradicated.  You can find them displayed in a stairwell landing and priced at 26,544 colons ($53).

Polly Pocket is still around, but she no longer fits in your pocket.  I thought the point of this toy was that it is small enough to carry in your pocket.

Gross, those disgusting Water Babies are still repulsing the youth.  For 16,088 colons ($32.17), you can have an ugly, fat baby with nauseating movements eerily similar to Jell-o.

Also found in the doll section are MyScene dolls, front and center, taking up almost the entire first aisle.  Developed by Mattel to compete with the contentious and wildly popular Bratz dolls, MyScene dolls out-slut the Bratz by actually morphing from pre-adolescents into trashy teens before your very eyes.  You can assist them by twisting a knob on their back, making them grow taller.  Their skirts, however, stay the same size.  For 15,265 colons ($30.53), these suggestive girl-to-teen dolls can be yours.

For the cool kids, these dolls have replaced the  once-dominant Barbie as the controversial must-have for young girls.  For as much heat as Barbie has taken, she looks like a positive role model next to MyScene and Bratz dolls.  I had dozens of Barbies when I was little, and I don't ever remember her looking trashy.  Overly ambitious and unfocused, maybe (Hello, Doctor, Gymnast, Artist, Astronaut, NASCAR Driver, Flight Attendant, Veternarian, Teacher Barbies!) but never trashy. 

Sure, 1965 Barbie told my mom, “Math is hard, let's go shopping!”  But by the time she reached me, she had smartened up, gotten a degree (or several), drove a Corvette and liked camping in her Barbie Trailer.  I hear she dumped that pretty-boy Ken a couple years ago.  Barbie's life told me that anything is possible.  She helps people learn sign language and is a Rockette.  She works at McDonald's with a medical degree.  You can get on a plane where she's both the pilot AND the flight attendant! 

Stay classy, Barbie and keep up the hard work.

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San José, Costa Rica, Friday, Dec. 7, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 243

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An A.M. Costa Rica editorial

The lesson of Pearl Harbor
still is relevant today

By Jay Brodell
Editor of A.M. Costa Rica

A few days ago I asked a trio of First World university graduates "What anniversary is being commemorated Friday, Dec. 7?"

None had a ready answer.

"It is an historical question," I pressed.

"U.S. history," one asked?

Finally giving in, I replied "U.S. and Japanese history."

"Does it have something to do with the war," one asked.

Franklin Roosevelt would have been unhappy. His "date that will live in infamy" has been reduced to a vague tickle deep in the cerebellum.

Yet historical context is important in a democratic society. This is the framework on which political decisions are constructed.

Pearl Harbor was one of those moments when everyone alive then knows where they were when they heard the news. Ditto for the Assassination of John Kennedy.

But anyone who was a alive on Dec, 7, 1941, will be at least 66 today. Anyone who remembers the shooting in Dallas has to be in their 40s. The rest of the population has their history, if they have any, distilled through the television, books and teachers.

The lesson of Pearl Harbor is to fear authoritarian regimes, such as that set up by the Japanese warlords. That lesson is as vital today as in 1941, and this is a reminder to pay close attention to authoritarian tendencies be they in Caracas or Washington.

Banco de Costa Rica car
A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
Bank worker demonstrates system using the so-called dynamic password to make a transaction. Card (inset) has the numbers being requested by the computer.

Banco de Costa Rica plans
to use 'dynamic passwords'

By José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Banco de Costa Rica customers will think they are playing bingo with a new system the bank unveiled Thursday to reduce electronic thefts. The system is called a dynamic password and will be used when bank customers make transfers to accounts not on their favorites list. These include transfers between banks.

The general manager of the bank, Carlos Fernandez Román, said that the bank handled 120 million transactions this year of which 80 percent were done online.  The bank's assistant manager, Mario Rivera Turcios, said that 120 customers have sought reimbursement because they have had money taken from their accounts illegally. He said the bank denied every claim and attributed the thefts to outside computer users who somehow obtained the passwords of the customers.

It was from an account at Banco de Costa Rica where an expat business woman lost $215,000 to Internet thieves. She made a claim that many of the transfers from her account were above the daily limit and that someone would need intimate access to the bank's computers to effect the transfers.

Despite what the assistant manager said, the woman said she was offered a settlement, although how much she actually got, if anything, is not known.

The new system, which begins Dec. 10, will overlay an additional system of security for transfers and certain other electronic transactions.

Customers will have physical cards containing five rows of 11 numbers. After they have done their transfer, the bank's computer will ask them to type in three double-digit numbers from the card. The computer will identify the numbers by row and column, such as G-5, and the customer will have to supply the actual numbers.

Since the information on the card is not transmitted online, thieves who tap Internet transactions will not know the three numbers. The bank is spending $65,000 on the system, the officials said. Customers will have to pick up an individualized card at a bank branch in order to use the system.

Francisco Dall'Anese, the nation's chief proesecutor, said earlier this week that some $8 million had been taken from Costa Ricans by electronic thieves.

British Embassy employee
has creative musical role

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A British Embassy employee is one of the creative influences behind this weekend's charity event at the Planetarium Universidad de Costa Rica.

He is Canadian Bruce Callow, who works as political and public affairs officer at the British Embassy. He composed the original music for Star Show Odyssey 2047 in collaboration with Pablo Luna. The multi-media futuristic presentation is about a girl struggling to survive after her hometown of Puntarenas is flooded 40 years from now.

The event, which will take place on Saturday at 7 p.m., is to benefit the Planetarium's outreach program that brings disadvantaged children from around the country to enjoy star shows there.

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Fifth of Latin population say they paid a bribe last year
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A new survey reports that more than 20 percent of people polled in Latin America say they paid a bribe in the past year to obtain a service. This percentage is down slightly from the previous year.

The survey, known as the Global Corruption Barometer, was released Thursday by the Berlin-based anti-corruption group Transparency International.

According to the poll, most bribes in Latin America were paid to the police more than 20 percent and to the judiciary about 11 percent.

Despite the report's indication that corruption in the region is waning, the study found that nearly half of the respondents from Latin American countries expect corruption to increase within the next three years.

The survey listed people in Colombia and the Dominican Republic as the region's most optimistic that government efforts to fight corruption are effective.

Transparency International says more than 63,000 people were interviewed this year for the survey in 60 countries and territories.

When asked about dealing with services, telephone and natural gas utilities were the least likely to demand bribes, while law enforcement was the most frequent source (25 per cent of respondents who came in contact with the police were asked to pay a bribe) with courts the second most frequent source worldwide.
“The barometer reveals that the police and the judiciary in many countries around the world are part of a cycle of corruption, demanding bribes from citizens,” said Cobus de Swardt, Transparency International managing director. “This troubling finding means that corruption is interfering with the basic right to equal treatment before the law.”

Transparency International has been campaigning strongly
 this year against corruption in the judiciary, based on its Global Corruption Report 2007. This report details how bribery affects the courts — judges and other judicial personnel accept bribes to delay or accelerate cases, to allow or deny an appeal, or to decide a case in a certain way.

The barometer also asks citizens which institutions they see as most affected by corruption. Year after year, political parties and parliaments — the very institutions entrusted to represent the public interest — take in first place.

“Our experience has shown that it is commitment at the top that will make or break efforts to fight corruption,” said de Swardt. “These troubling numbers show that government faces a crisis of legitimacy, with the potential to undermine democratization, stability and the protection of human rights.”

The institutions which fared best in the eyes of ordinary citizens were religious bodies and non-governmental organizations. Although still relatively clean, the perception of non-government organizations has worsened globally in comparison to 2004 survey results, as did the perception of private enterprises, indicating that these two sectors are under increasing public pressure to demonstrate transparency and accountability.

Vanishing traditions get a reprieve with culture program
By Helen Thompson
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Traditional wooden toys, herbal cures and jewelry made from fish scales were on display at the Teatro Aduana Thursday as part of a demonstration of Costa Rica's traditional culture that could be in danger of disappearing.

"Bearers of culture" from the country's nine different regions came together to show the work that they have been doing with children in school workshops as part of a Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deportes initiative.

Doña Fela, a middle-aged woman with a table full of herbs such as oregano, cucuracha, mint and uña de gato, asked people to unbutton their shirts and used a metal stick to touch their chests to demonstrate natural medical techniques, and
fish scale pendant
Fish scale pendant
told people how to drink herbs in order to avoid diseases such as diarrhea, anemia and even cancer.

Javier Salas and some of the children who took his workshop, played with the movable wooden-jointed toys that they had made in schools in Puntarenas.

Colorful circular pendants on beaded necklaces were shown by Carmen Jiménez from Caña Negro, who makes them by scaling the gaspar fish, a "living fossil" (atractosteus  tropicus)  that has hardly evolved in 150
 million years, and drying the scales in the sun for over a month before painting them and making them into jewelry.

Eighteen traditions in total were all taught to children through workshops held in schools throughout the country.

The purpose of the “Talleres artisticos culturales con personas portadoras de tradición” pilot program is to transmit local historic knowledge to new generations, making sure that national history is not lost.

Maria Elena Carballo, culture minister, used Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez's famous book "One Hundred Years of Solitude" as an example in her speech:

“The older generations do not communicate their experience and knowledge to the younger generations,” she said. “The connections are broken, and the past is forgotten about, and in the end the town is destroyed as it can't interact with the
needle medicine
A.M. Costa Rica/Helen Thompson
Doña Fela demonstrates her medicinal technique with a long metal stick.

outside world. Creating a collective memory and communicating the past to the young people of the future through the bearers of culture is one way to break this solitude.”

Two workshops were given to a school in each region, ranging from leather shoemaking, wood sculpture and traditional narration to fishing methods, agriculture and gastronomy.

Many of the methods used are in danger of becoming obsolete because of new materials and mass production, such as the making of canastas or baskets from bejuco wood for coffee collection, which is being replaced by the wide usage of plastic canastas.

Some of the workshops took several months to complete, imparting to the children traditions with which their grandparents would have been familiar.   The initiative is being supported by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Ministerio de Educación Pública.

Iran does not seem to have a history of starting a war
This week I watched and listened to a long and rather rambling press conference given by President George Bush.  The big news that prompted it was that Iran, contrary to past intelligence reports, stopped its nuclear weapon development as far back as 2003.  In spite of what should be considered as good news and a happy Christmas present for the world, President Bush’s insisted that, based upon past history, since Iran once sought to develop nuclear weapons, it could well begin making a bomb again, and is still a threat and will be a threat to future peace. 

Since he mentioned history as an indicator, I decided to read a little history about Iran and peace in the Middle East. Iran is a very ancient country, once known as Persia.  The last time, as far as I can see, that Iran declared war on anyone was in the 1800’s. It is one of the few Middle Eastern countries that in modern times, has not started war with anyone – despite the rhetoric about wanting Israel to disappear.   Iran has been a country more warred upon than warring.  More occupied, colonized, and exploited by the industrial oil-hungry countries, mainly Great Britain, the United States and Russia.

In recent history, the most egregious act committed by citizens of Iran was taking American Embassy employees hostage in 1979.   The students who did this, claimed the embassy was filled with spies, not diplomats.  The government of Iran did not sponsor this take-over, but it did nothing to stop it.
There have been accusations that Iran has been meddling in and aiding the enemies of the U.S. in Iraq.  This is not exactly new in the annals of war.  When Iraq attacked Iran the United States and Great Britain, provided help to Iraq.  The United States helped the Taliban in Afghanistan against the invading Soviet Union.  The French helped the colonies in the war for independence against England.

Iran has never threatened to attack anyone with bombs of any kind – only to retaliate if they were attacked.  I cannot believe that President Bush wants to preemptively bomb or go to war with Iran while still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Historically, countries that have been that ambitious have not fared too well.  But history is history and the interpretation of history is another matter.  I guess we all believe what we choose to believe.

And speaking of believing, Christmas is close upon us and there are other concerns to consider.  Catholicism is the 
Living in Costa Rica

. . .Where the living is good

By Jo Stuart

State religion of Costa Rica.  Thus the citizens and the country are not experiencing the same angst that a democratic country without a state religion faces.

In Costa Rica there is no argument about the shape of the star on a ‘holiday’ tree, or whether to tree or not to tree on government property.  Both the secular and religious faces of Christmas are everywhere.  I have seen Santa with his sleigh and reindeer on the roofs of several homes in Belen although the chance of snow is pretty slim.  Elsewhere wherever you look there is a creche. 

Granted, this is a small country, with about one percent of the population of the United States and the main religions practiced are Roman Catholic and Protestant with a sprinkling of Judaism.  But there are a number of different Protestant sects represented.  The Evangelicals are growing, and in Belen we can boast an impressive marble Mormon temple and a large compound belonging to Jehovah’s Witnesses – although I don’t see many white-shirted young men on bicycles.

Because of the Chinese population, I am sure there are practitioners of eastern religions not associated with God or Jesus. And of course, there are the witches of Escazú.  It seems to me that by having an official state religion, a country can go about its business of governing and dealing with important matters because it can maintain a more or less attitude of benign neglect towards all religions.

However, no matter what the official religion is in Costa Rica or how noisy the rhetoric of the warring religions in the United States gets, there is one thing the two countries have in common. Santa and the spirit of giving gifts have overtaken the religious spirit of Christmas, which means shopping, shopping, shopping, which is what Christmas is all about now.

(And who knows, may be the solution to the conflict with Iran.)  

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French president makes a direct appeal to Colombian rebels
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

French President Nicolas Sarkozy again marked his hands-on diplomatic style by personally requesting the head of Colombia's guerrillas to release 45 hostages the group has been holding for years.

In television and radio messages released overnight by the French government, Sarkozy directly appealed to rebel leader Manuel Marulanda to release the 45 hostages, who include three Americans and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.

He said France did not share Marulanda's views and condemned his methods. But he also said that releasing the hostages would show the rebel Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia understands humanitarian principles.

Sarkozy also delivered words of encouragement to the hostages, singling out Ms. Betancourt, who was captured by the rebels six years ago as she campaigned for the Colombian presidency.
The French president praised Ms. Betancourt's dignity and courage and told her to stay strong. He said her family waits for her release and that France will never drop her cause.

Talks between the Colombian government and the rebels have been stalled over proposals to swap the hostages for about 500 rebel prisoners in Colombian jails. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently tried to mediate a solution, but he has fallen out with Colombia's leader, Álvaro Uribe.

Paris has kept Ms. Betancourt's cause high on its agenda and posters of the politician, who has family members in France, are draped in public places. Recently released videos showed Ms. Betancourt looking despondent.

Sarkozy's direct intervention is becoming a trademark of his diplomacy. He sent his ex-wife Cecilia to Libya a few months ago to lobby for the release of Bulgarian health workers imprisoned there. Last month, he flew to Chad to bring back 10 Europeans jailed on charges of involvement in a botched effort by a French charity to fly 103 African children to France.

Bolivia's president wants to take his chances with a popular referendum
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Bolivian President Evo Morales has announced he will seek a popular vote on whether to remain president as tension rises over his efforts to reform the country's constitution.

Morales said Wednesday on national television that he will send Congress a proposal to put his leadership to a referendum. He also challenged opposition governors to do the same.

He did not provide any details on the proposed vote.
Violence has flared in Bolivia amid efforts by an assembly to rewrite the constitution. Last month, unrest broke out in the city of Sucre, killing four people, after the assembly approved a framework for the new constitution.

Morales has said the constitutional changes will give Bolivia's indigenous majority more political power. Critics say the changes unfairly reduce the power of the country's nine provinces.

Under the new constitution, Morales will be allowed to seek re-election as often as he likes.

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