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Dispatches In Brief

Dictator as playwright

Does Saddam Hussein have an artsy streak? Iraq's National Theater recently opened a new play called Zabibah and the King, which is based on a novel that many believe was written by the dictator. The love story features a beloved king and a married peasant woman, whose love turns the monarch into a great patriot. This makes other rulers jealous, so they plan a conspiracy against the couple. The title character Zabibah-supposedly a symbol of the Iraqi people-is raped and killed on Jan. 17, the anniversary of the start of the Gulf War. Iraqi culture minister Hammed Youssef Hammadi gushed over the melodrama, calling it "a glittering event in the record of Arab theater," and top figures from the ruling Baath party attended the play's opening. Many Iraqis suspect Saddam wrote the original novel because it contains pointed political references that might not have otherwise survived censorship. Meanwhile, American intelligence officials have reportedly examined the novel with interest.

Driving dealers up a wall

The world's largest retailer is taking a test drive into a new market. Starting this month, lots called Price 1 Auto Stores will appear near some Wal-Mart stores, featuring set prices for cars and no haggling. Customers will have up to five days to return the vehicles for their money back. Wal-Mart is leasing property next to five of its Houston stores to a company called Asbury Automotive for the test; each lot will have between 60 and 100 vehicles, including cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs. The vehicles will come with a 99-day or 3,300-mile limited warranty with no deductible. The company will evaluate the project once the six-month experiment is over-and it could become part of Wal-Mart's one-stop-shopping experience nationwide. "If it works, there will be a lot of used car dealers who will be quaking in their booties," said retail consultant Kurt Barnard.

Death of a doll maker

Ruth Handler begat America's favorite blue-eyed blonde. The co-founder of Mattel, who invented the Barbie doll in 1959, died last month at age 85 after complications from colon surgery. Ms. Handler named the doll after her own daughter, Barbara, and brought Barbie into production over the skepticism of the company's ad executives. The 11 5-inch-tall plastic toy became its own industry, with more than 1 billion Barbies sold in 150 countries. The idea was to create a semi-mature doll that let girls play out their dreams about maturity. Barbie could go to the prom, get married (to Ken, who was named after the creator's son), and take up one of countless careers. Back in 1959, few could have predicted the backlash from feminists, who considered Barbie too white, too beautiful, and too sexist, even though Ms. Handler saw her as a symbol of empowerment. "My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be," she wrote in a 1994 autobiography. "Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices." Ms. Handler, who struggled with breast cancer, was forced out of Mattel in the 1970s. She then started a second career selling a prosthetic breast. She sold that company in 1991.

Hijacking Harry & Louise

Hollywood's cloning lobby has enlisted two old pitchmen in its campaign to reach Middle America: Harry and Louise. The fictional couple that in 1994 confounded the Clinton plan to nationalize health care is now on the side of the liberals: Their creators are using them to pitch the virtues of embryo research. In one Orwellian ad, Louise claims that cloning isn't really cloning, but simply an adult skin cell inserted into an unfertilized egg. In another, the character describes an early-stage lab technique as a "cure" for her diabetes. The propaganda campaign premiered on local Washington TV during an episode of The West Wing. The ads are sponsored by CuresNow, a pressure group founded by movie producer Janet Zucker and Lucy Fisher, a former vice chairman of Sony Entertainment. It backs cloning for research (but not reproductive) purposes, claiming this could generate cures for diabetes, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. CuresNow wants to stop a bill offered by Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), which would ban all human cloning. The activists claim lawmakers want to criminalize science. Ms. Zucker and Ms. Fisher each have daughters suffering from juvenile diabetes. Said Ms. Fisher: "How can we explain to our children that our government is now the greatest obstacle to a cure for their disease?" A lengthy CuresNow press release quotes Ms. Zucker saying "lives are at stake" over this issue but makes no reference to whether embryos are human life. An insurance industry group commissioned the original "Harry and Louise" ads. The Health Insurance Association of America, which never trademarked the characters, disavows any connection to the cloning spots. It issued a statement saying it has "no involvement in the current advertising campaign"-and does not endorse it. (The same ad firm, Goddard-Claussen, created both campaigns.) Pro-lifers called the new ads misleading. The National Right to Life Committee's Douglas Johnson said they are a "brazen deception" and referred to the backers as "Hollywood manipulators."

Euthanasia case dies in EU

A European Union human-rights court declined late last month to overrule a member-nation's law against assisted suicide. The surprise decision is a major setback for euthanasia activists in Europe who were counting on the far more liberal EU panel to substitute its judgment for that of courts in Britain. The case involves 43-year-old Diane Pretty, who suffers from a motor neuron disease that has left her a quadriplegic. Mrs. Pretty wants her husband Brian to help her kill herself, but he first sought immunity from prosecution. Suicide isn't a crime in Britain, but Brian Pretty would face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty of assisting his wife's death. British courts ruled twice last fall against granting immunity. So the Prettys took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, claiming ironically that the British law violated the European Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing the right to life. Even though the Strasbourg court rejected that argument, the judges expressed sympathy for Mrs. Pretty's desire to avoid "a distressing death." Now her attorneys have three months to appeal and take the case to a 17-judge grand jury. This case is being closely watched because euthanasia is a hot issue across Europe. The Netherlands fully legalized euthanasia last month; other countries, including Switzerland, France, Germany, and Sweden, tolerate assisted suicides. Some European pro-lifers hope this decision will launch the reversal of a dangerous trend-and even lead to the reversal of the landmark Dutch law. "This judgment ... emphatically rejects any right to die," said Bruno Quinatavalle of Britain's Pro Life Alliance.

The power of the nurse

A good nurse is hard to find. Hospitals across the country face double-digit vacancy rates as nurses complain they are underpaid and overworked. Experts say the predicament could last decades as the medical profession scrambles to recruit new talent. The hardest positions to fill are those in hospitals, nursing homes, and other places that deal directly with gravely ill people. Right now, some hospitals are using on-site daycare, inexpensive housing, and other perks to fill slots; others must look in Canada for available nurses. A major physicians group warned last month that "targeted steps" must be taken to find a new generation of nurses and retain those already working in the field. The American College of Physicians/ American Society of Internal Medicine called for stepped-up recruitment programs, tuition reimbursement, and loan repayment programs for nursing students. Currently, an estimated 126,000 full-time nursing positions are unfilled at hospitals across the country. The average U.S. vacancy rate is about 11 percent today, according to the American Hospital Association. Many medical officials are at a loss about how to fix the problem, which is expected to get much, much worse. By 2020, America will need 1.75 million registered nurses, but only 635,000 will be available, according to Health and Human Services estimates. The shortage may affect America's national defense. A recent report found that the war against terrorism has increased demand, draining America's supply of available military nurses. A Brigham Young study (published in The Journal of Nursing Administration) found that civilian staffs feel additional strain because medical reservists are being called up to active duty.

Mr. Smith goes to jail

David L. Smith unleashed one of the world's most obnoxious computer viruses-and now he's going to prison for it. The programmer received a 20-month sentence after causing some $80 million in damage. Mr. Smith, whose "Melissa" virus struck in March 1999, admitted he used a stolen AOL screen name and password to post the malignant software code to a sexually-oriented discussion group. "My curiosity got the better of me, as I soon began to write the 'Melissa Virus,'" Mr. Smith wrote in a letter to Judge Joseph Greenaway Jr. "I borrowed a lot of the code from other viruses that I found on the Internet." Melissa was hidden in e-mail and manipulated Microsoft's office software. Once the user opened the attached document, Melissa sent infected mail to the first 50 names in the user's Microsoft Outlook address book. The volume of messages it spawned slowed some systems to a crawl; among those affected was NATO headquarters in Brussels. Mr. Smith admitted his actions were "immoral," but denied that the virus did any real harm. Since the Melissa outbreak, many e-mail users have become leery of attached messages-and many experts warn people not to open them if they come from unknown people or the message looks suspicious.

At $30k a day, Microsoft war still drags on

The nine states still fighting the landmark Microsoft federal antitrust settlement battle want stricter penalties enforced. They contend the settlement's terms are vague enough that the software giant will continue using its market power unfairly to injure competitors. The states' lawyer, Kevin Hodges, drew blood when he got Microsoft witness Stuart Madnick to admit vague terminology left the settlement open to interpretation. Referring to buzz phrases like "interoperability," the MIT computer scientist replied, "it is ambiguous in that regard." (Meanwhile, the case drags on like a snail. Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that each day in court costs at least $30,000. "These recalcitrant states are gambling with taxpayer dollars," grumbled the group's president, Tom Schatz.) Company chairman Bill Gates took the stand last month to say that proposed penalties could be crippling. Mr. Gates testified that the states' "breadth of restrictions" would hurt the PC market and short-circuit innovation: "Microsoft [research and development] would at best go into a 10-year period of hibernation." Free-marketers have championed Microsoft's cause, but the company may be trying to win some sympathy from the left. After his court testimony, Mr. Gates showed up at a Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition conference in San Jose with Jesse Jackson discussing diversity in the high-tech industry.

More terror-proof buildings?

Better engineering can help prevent another disaster like the World Trade Center collapse, according to a federal study. Researchers pointed out two design changes that might save lives in the future. First, fireproof material that sticks to steel beams and emergency stairwells; second, stronger stairwells and escape routes spaced farther apart. These changes would give building occupants more time to escape. But the study said the WTC towers had no serious structural problems. In fact, the complex exceeded building code requirements in some areas, according to experts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Society of Civil Engineers. Researchers noted the "remarkable" phenomenon that the towers withstood the crashes long enough "that most building occupants were able to evacuate safely." Nonetheless, the report questioned whether engineering could completely protect buildings from fast-moving aircraft. What proved deadly was the fire fed by thousands of gallons of aviation fuel. It spilled across floors and down elevator shafts, setting ablaze furniture, computers, paper files, and the planes' cargo over multiple floors. Once the inferno softened the buildings' steel framework, the towers fell. These preliminary findings support what other experts already believed, though the study says final conclusions require more research.