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CLOONEYVENICE-- There was no other news on the Rialto on Friday as A-list stars glided into Venice to celebrate the wedding of Hollywood hero George Clooney and human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin.
  The two-time Oscar winner and Kentucky-born Clooney, 53, is set to renounce his oath of bachelorhood and marry British-Lebanese barrister Alamuddin, 36, in a multi-day extravaganza in Italy's floating city.
  A beaming Clooney and his bride-to-be took a water taxi on the Grand Canal on Friday, and more boats bearing blue flags printed with the initials "A" and "G" waited in the morning at Venice's airport to ferry early arrivals including Ellen Barkin, Clooney's co-star in "Ocean's Thirteen".
  Tourists and Venetians alike clustered after dark on Friday on a pier next to the seven-star Aman Canal Grande Hotel, a fresco-filled palazzo which the pair reportedly reserved for an exchange-of-vows ceremony and reception on Saturday.
  Among those hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the glamorous guests on a list rumoured to hold 150 names was Osmany Mena, 37, who was visiting Venice from Miami, Florida.
  "They talked about Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie. It would be cool to see any of them, all of them," Mena said, mentioning Clooney's co-star Bullock in the 2013 blockbuster "Gravity" and another recently married Hollywood power couple.
  Local press said Matt Damon, star of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "The Bourne Identity", landed later in the day at the airport on Venice's long Lido island.
  Alamuddin and Clooney, who vowed never to remarry after his 1993 divorce from actress Talia Balsam, posted legal notice of their plans to wed at a West London town hall in August, drawing a crowd of fans but no appearance from the couple.
  Alamuddin has represented Ukrainian former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko at the European Court of Human Rights, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in extradition proceedings.
  She has been dating Clooney since October 2013, according to media reports, and their engagement was confirmed when her legal chambers issued a statement in April to congratulate the couple.
  Alamuddin also advised former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan on the conflict in Syria, an issue about which Clooney has spoken publicly. Clooney also recently worked as an advocate for refugees in Darfur, Sudan.
  Celebrity Status
  Speculation and rumours about the wedding have swirled, but always centred on Italy, where Clooney is a regular attendee of the Venice Film Festival and owns a villa by Lake Como.
  He set off a media frenzy earlier this month when he was widely quoted as saying at an event in Tuscany that he and his bride-to-be had met in Italy and would marry in Venice.
  The official ceremony is expected to be held on Monday at Venice's town hall, the 14th-century Ca' Farsetti palace, and Italian media reported that the former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, would officiate.
  Venice's local government said it would close off a few of the town's narrow pedestrian streets for two hours on Monday.
  "Considering that the location of the ceremony is likely to become a target for people attracted by the celebrity status of the event, high numbers could be a problem for traffic and pose a threat to those people's safety," the notice said.
  Not all Venetians were worried by the prospect of crowds. Marco Pampani, 58, an architect who lives in the city, welcomed the couple's decision to bring their nuptials there.
  "This puts the city in the spotlight," Pampani said by the Aman hotel on Friday evening, still cheery after standing there for 1 1/2 hours. "It brings people, movement, things Venice needs."

boxtrollsLOS ANGELES-- As the hipsters of animation, Portland, Oregon-based Laika studios is not afraid to play on the fringe with its latest film "The Boxtrolls," and its lead stars are not your average cute animated monsters.

"We're never going to make things that are middle of the road or inoffensive," said Laika's President Travis Knight.

"The Boxtrolls," out in U.S. theaters on Friday, makes stars out of its odd, grotesque little grunting green monsters who are named after the cardboard boxes they wear, such as Fish and Shoe. The creatures are feared by the residents of the whimsical town Cheesebridge for their alleged human-eating traits.

""We could have gone the standard animation route where they aren't really monsters. They're fuzzy little adorable balls of fluff, but that plays against the basic idea of something being marginalized for what they look like," Knight said.

"This society hates these things because of appearance and how they've been presented."

Laika, the independent studio behind 2009's "Coraline" and 2012's "ParaNorman," both nominated for Oscars, prides itself on creating aesthetically different tales from other animation studios such as Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks.

"Family films have become more watered down because you're trying to be calculating populous in your approach, where you have to appeal to every possible demographic," Knight said.

Laika's selling point lies in hand-made artistry, creating miniature physical sets and puppets and using stop-motion animation, where each frame was positioned by hand and captured by camera by 400 artists working over 18 months. The only computer-generated imagery used was to build the backdrop to the physical sets.

Based on books by British author Alan Snow and inspired by British comedy troupe Monty Python, "The Boxtrolls" tells a coming-of-age tale with a Dickensian twist.

The Boxtrolls are forced to hide underground, where they are raising an orphaned human boy they name Eggs, as the hideous Archibald Snatcher attempts to climb to high society by capturing and eliminating the misunderstood monsters.

Eggs comes to the Boxtrolls' rescue and tries to find his own identity with the help of Winnie, an upper class child who is trying to communicate with her aristocratic father.

While the story is predominantly British in tone and cast, led by Ben Kingsley as the voice of Snatcher and "Game of Thrones" star Isaac Hempstead Wright as Eggs, with American actors Elle Fanning and Tracy Morgan also donning English accents, the directors feel the story would appeal to a wide audience.

"It's an universal story," said co-director Anthony Stacchi. "It's the journey from innocence to experience, ... a naive little boy growing up, and I can see those from Iran, China, from anywhere in the world."

"The Boxtrolls" earned mixed reviews from critics, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it "stubbornly unappealing," while UK film magazine Empire praised its mixture of "slapstick and silliness" and "nefarious plots."

It is projected by BoxOffice.com to make $14 million in its opening weekend.

leoFLORENCE, Italy- - If there is any mind an art restorer would die to get into, it would be that of Leonardo da Vinci, the master painter, architect, engineer and inventor whose genius epitomised the brilliance of the Renaissance.
  That was the unique opportunity restorers in Florence have relished as they clean the "Adoration of the Magi", a massive painting that Leonardo started in 1481 at the age of 29 but abandoned a year later, leaving it in various stages of conception and development.
  The painting on wood, measuring about 2.5 by 2.5 metres (8.2 by 8.2 feet) depicts the three wise men who paid tribute to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, but it also includes a riot of human figures, battling horses, architectural designs, landscapes and skies.
  Done on 10 slabs of wood glued together, it has blank areas, areas with under-drawings, and sections in advanced stages.
  "This is perhaps the most quintessential work-in-progress in the history of art," said Cecilia Frosinini, one of the directors of the ongoing restoration of the work, which is slated to return to Florence's Uffizi Gallery next year.
  "Leonardo never wanted this to be seen by anyone at this stage, probably not even by those who commissioned it, probably not even his assistants. This is the phase in which he was still elaborating in his mind what the final work would look like," she said, standing in front of the piece.
  Leonardo received the commission to paint an altar piece depicting the Adoration from the monks of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, near Florence. He stopped abruptly when he left to take up an offer of steady income from the Dukes of Milan.
  In the late 1500s it was acquired by Florence's Medici family, whose restorers added layers of both clear and sepia-coloured varnish to give it a homogenous, monochrome look when they put it in their collection.
  The current restoration project, which began three years ago, has removed much of the dull, oxidized varnish as well as traces of past restoration attempts, revealing many previously hidden details, facial expressions and subtleties of light and shadow.
  There are sections where the same horse's head is drawn in various positions, where horses in battle still have three hind legs because Leonardo still had not decided which would go and which would stay.
  A Peek At A Secret
  "The great fascination of this project was seeing something that we were not supposed to see, standing behind the artist and imagining what the final version could have looked like," said Patrizia Riitano, one of the two restorers who cleaned it.
  "I hope that I have been able to enter Leonardo's mind, at least a little bit," said Riitano, who has also worked on paintings by Raphael and other Renaissance masters.
  The restoration showed that despite the large size of his work, Leonardo did all the under drawings freehand, eschewing the "cartoons", or dotted-lined outlines, used at the time to divide large complex works into sections.
  "We have gotten close to this inexhaustible genius who is never satisfied with his work, who wants to be totally free, even from himself, free from the restrictions that the cartoons would have imposed," said Frosinini.
  "It is as if we are privy to a private conversation - Leonardo talking to himself, perhaps even arguing with himself," she said.
  Experts at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Italy's premier, state-run art restoration lab, have ruled out a hypothesis put forward 15 years ago that Leonardo had done only the preliminary work and the paint was added by an unknown artist long after the master's death in 1519.
  "Of course there were restorations and small additions here and there over the centuries but we are convinced that this is all substantially Leonardo," said Roberto Bellucci, a renowned expert on cleaning oil paintings who restored it with Riitano.
  In 2001, the Uffizi, after much public and in-house hand wringing, decided not to restore the masterpiece because it was deemed too delicate by some.
  Improved techniques and more scientific studies convinced the Uffizi to go ahead with the restoration this time.
  Marco Ciatti, the head of the restoration lab, said that if the cleaning had not gone ahead, viewing it would have been "like trying to read a book of poems in a dark room".
  After the wood backing of the painting is restored, it is due to return to a special room in the Uffizi, where it will be on display with two other Leonardo works.

trialBEIJING, - A Chinese court on Tuesday jailed for life the country's most prominent advocate for the rights of Muslim Uighur people, a sentence that rights advocates said sent a clear signal that the government is determined to suppress dissent.

Economics professor Ilham Tohti, 44, stood trial for two days last week on separatism charges in the western region of Xinjiang. His case has provoked an outcry in the West and among international human rights groups.

"I'm innocent, I protest," Tohti shouted to the court before the judge ordered police officers to drag him out of the courthouse, according to Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping.

Tohti's wife, Guzaili Nu'er, who saw Tohti for the first time in eight months during last week's trial, bawled in the courthouse when the verdict was announced, Li said.

Tohti, who is an ethnic Uighur, is the latest moderate intellectual to be convicted by Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration.

The court also ordered the confiscation of all of his personal property.

"This is totally unacceptable," Li said. "He will appeal. Based on the wording of the verdict, this case is extremely politicised."

The sentence was met with dismay among the international community and rights advocates, who have come under increasing pressure from the government.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was "deeply disturbed" by Tohti's sentence.

"Peaceful dissent is not a crime," Kerry said in a statement. "This harsh sentence appears to be retribution for Professor Tohti's peaceful efforts to promote human rights for China's ethnic Uighur citizens."

U.S. President Obama said the United States was "standing in solidarity" with people who have been detained, including Tohti and imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo.

In a statement, the European Union condemned the sentence, calling it "completely unjustified".

In China, Tohti is regarded as an outspoken intellectual who has repeatedly criticised the government for not giving Xinjiang and its Uighurs more autonomy. His eight-month detention and harsh sentence is widely seen as part of a government crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang.

"It's very shocking, much harsher than anybody expected," said Maya Wang of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. "It's quite unprecedented for someone who is so prominent."

The charge of separatism carries a maximum penalty of death in extreme cases.

Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people. Many resent restrictions on their culture and religion, and complain they are denied economic opportunities amid an influx of majority Han Chinese into Xinjiang.

The government has blamed a series of violent attacks in which hundreds of people have been killed on Islamist militants who it says want to establish an independent state in Xinjiang called East Turkestan.

The government says Uighurs are granted wide religious, cultural and linguistic freedom.

"We are always opposed to other countries interfering with our judicial independence," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily news briefing, when asked about international criticism of Tohti's case.

'Hardline Stance'

Tohti, who taught at Beijing's Minzu University, which specialises in ethnic minority studies, has said he never associated with any terrorist organisation or foreign-based group and "relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request" human rights and legal rights for Uighurs.

His friends say he has never advocated independence for Xinjiang and he is proud to be Chinese.

"The tragedy of Ilham shows that solving a problem through peaceful means is impossible in China," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said in an e-mailed statement.

Prosecutors in Xinjiang said Tohti had promoted independence for the region on a website he managed called Uighurbiz.net. State news agency Xinhua said that Tohti had "bewitched and coerced young ethnic students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate".

"He also colluded with foreign groups and individuals in hyping incidents related to Xinjiang with the aim of making domestic issues international," Xinhua said.

Tohti told the court last week he established the website to promote dialogue between scholars and that he had publicly opposed separatism and violence, Li said.

Tohti had rejected the prosecution's evidence and said statements against him by student volunteers who had worked on the website were made under pressure from authorities.

"It signifies that China is taking a hardline stance towards any Uighur moderates trying to put forward solutions that differ from the party's approach," William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said of the sentence.

chef_p_34OSLO-- In an unfashionable part of Oslo, head chef Esben Holmboe Bang's minimalist creations are stirring up food culture in a country where, a generation ago, the height of fine dining was boiled cod and potatoes.

At Maaemo, a restaurant squeezed between the city's bus terminal and railway station, Bang uses exclusively local ingredients to rustle up the likes of langoustines with spruce, mackerel with wild garlic, and butter ice cream with brown butter caramel,

Maaemo - old Finnish for All That Lives - received two Michelin stars 15 months after opening in 2010, in its first mention, and ranks 79th in the top 100 of the world's best restaurants, according to Restaurant Magazine.

It is a standard-bearer for a quiet revolution in Norway, a poor country turned rich partly thanks to its oil wealth where, in the 1970s, Italian restaurants used to serve pizza with a side order of potatoes to reassure diners that, if they didn't like the main dish, they would still have something to eat.

Bang, a 32-year-old Dane sporting a large tattoo of the ravens of the Norse God Odin on his left arm, spoke to Reuters at his restaurant while staff prepped for the evening sitting.

Q: What are you trying to achieve with Maaemo?

A: We wanted very much to open a Norwegian restaurant that reflects where we are and in doing so create a more progressive cuisine compared to the other restaurants that were there when we opened. They used Norwegian produce, but it was always cooked in a French way and mixed with French ingredients.

We wanted something that was more in a "Dogma" situation (a stripped-down style with strict rules pioneered - in cinematographic terms - by Danish director Lars von Trier). To be very creative, one needs to set limits. Without limitations, I cannot function.

Q: What were the limitations?

A: Only Norwegian produce. No imports whatsoever. In Norway, it is quite difficult because of the climate and there is a long tradition of using imported produce. We also wanted everything to be organic, biodynamic or wild. It was very, very difficult in the beginning to find suppliers because no one had done this before.

I would tell a farmer: "I would really like to use some of your produce in the restaurant" and he would not quite understand because he could sell large amount of vegetables with the big companies and I wanted to buy directly from him.

Also there was no infrastructure in place to make deliveries to the restaurant, so we had to get it ourselves. It was very time consuming. I would not say it is easier now, but we have made it more accessible. And now we have made a name, people contact us to offer their produce.

Q: What about the diners?

A: People were quite sceptical at the beginning. We were not a typical restaurant. I don't use a lot of meat or protein and that was a big hurdle because some people want a large piece of meat on their plates. It is funny. Often in Norway, it takes a little bit of international recognition before they start to recognise something themselves.

Q: Do you think the food culture in Norway is changing?

A: The restaurants that are opening now, they seem to do something more personal. They try to not think too much about what it is that people want. They focus more on what it is they want to do. I hope that somehow we were part of that. In Norway, no one has done this before. We just did it, and we are learning by doing and we learn as we go. To me it is very exciting, you are not stuck in a box.

Q: Why the emphasis on organic, wild and biodynamic food?

A: I don't want to use vegetables that have been poisoned, sprayed with pesticides. It is a natural choice. The biodynamic is taking it one step further than the organic: it is so much better because the people who grow that way have a passion for what they do.

Q: What was it like to receive two Michelin stars in such a short time?

A: It was insane. It still has not quite sunk in. I was maybe hoping for one star. When I saw two, I thought it was a typo.

Recipe: Langoustine & Last Year's Spruce

This is a dish that's been on our menu virtually since we opened, and it's a showcase of the impeccable quality of shellfish in Norway. Here, we combine langoustine with the flavours of the forest, infusing the sweet flesh of the shellfish with a gentle aroma of spruce.

In the restaurant we serve the langoustines nestled on a bed of spruce branches which itself sits atop some dry ice. A warm spruce infusion is poured over the dry ice, which sends billowy spruce-scented clouds wafting across the table.

If you're making this at home this step is entirely optional, but the effect is very dramatic.

Serves 4 people.


- 300g washed spruce branches for the infusion (optional)

- 25g spruce shoots

- 50g pickle brine (1 part vinegar, 1 part sugar, 2 parts water)

- 150g butter

- 30g small spruce branches (washed)

- 70g white wine vinegar

- 100g sugar

- 2.1g agar powder

- 5g rapeseed oil

- 4-8 large, very fresh (preferably live) langoustines

- Dry ice (optional)

- Washed spruce branches for serving (optional)


1. (optional) If making the spruce infusion to pour over the dry ice, start by placing the spruce branches in a saucepan and cover them with the water. Bring the water to the boil and cover the pot with cling film to prevent any steam from escaping. Turn down the heat to the lowest setting and leave it overnight.

2. (optional) The next morning strain the mixture, reserving the liquid. Pass the liquid through a fine strainer or cloth net. Store in a cool place.

3. To make the pickled spruce, bring the pickle brine to the boil and add the spruce shoots and then turn off the heat. Keep in an airtight container and refrigerate until needed.

4. To make the spruce butter, place the butter and the spruce in a vacuum bag. Place in a water bath set at 80C for 10 hours. Strain through a fine sieve and refrigerate.

5. To make the pickled spruce gel, place the vinegar, sugar, agar powder and 10g of the pickling liquid from the spruce shoots in a pot and bring to a boil while whisking. Turn down to a simmer and continue to whisk for 1 minute.

6. While the mixture is still hot, pour it into a blender and add 5g of the pickled spruce shoots. Blend on high for 1 minute. Pass through a fine strainer and refrigerate.

7. Once the mixture is completely set, return it to the blender. Blend on high while adding the rapeseed oil. Blend the mix until completely smooth. Pass through a fine strainer and refrigerate.

8. Take the langoustines and carefully separate the heads from the bodies. Place the undersides of the tails against each other and bind with elastic bands to stop them curling up while cooking.

9. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and blanche the langoustines for 40-60 seconds depending on their size. Refresh immediately in ice-cold water.

10. When the langoustines are cool, carefully peel away the shell off the tail. Remove the langoustine's digestive tract by taking the tail and holding the underside towards you, carefully remove the tract with a pair of tweezers. Wash lightly with running water if needed. Refrigerate the tails on a clean damp towel until needed.

11. Take the tails out of the fridge 10 minutes before cooking to allow them to come up to room temperature.

12. Heat a small non-stick frying pan on medium high heat. Add a small amount of rapeseed oil. Gently place the tails in the pan, with the underside facing up.

13. Once the tails begin to caramelise add a large spoon of the spruce butter and baste the tails until just cooked through. The centre of the tail should be slightly translucent.

14. Place on a paper towel and season with salt and brush the top of each tail lightly with the pickled spruce gel.

15. (optional) To serve it like we do in the restaurant, place the dry ice in the bottom of a bowl, covering it with the washed spruce branches.

16. Place one or two of the langoustine tails (depending on how many you are using) on top of the branches. At the table, pour the hot spruce infusion into the centre of each bowl, onto the dry ice.

17. Eat with fingers and enjoy!

mitchPADUCAH, Ky-- Mitch McConnell is hardly a lovable guy. The Republican leader in the U.S. Senate has a dour public persona and many of his constituents don't view him as a "real Kentuckian," according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll that underscores what his election campaign already knows - McConnell has an image problem.

While other politicians might be deterred by polls showing how unpopular they are in their home state, McConnell has risen to the challenge as he seeks a sixth term in what is perhaps his toughest re-election battle in a 30-year Senate career.

Relying on broad financial support from corporations and donors, he has launched a series of withering attack ads on Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, linking her with an even more unpopular President Barack Obama. At the same time, McConnell has used social media to soften his image and make light of his blandness.

The two-pronged strategy marks a change in emphasis for McConnell. While he has always been aggressive on the campaign trail, in the past he has overcome his charisma deficit by touting his ability to bring government-spending projects home to Kentucky. But the conservative anti-spending Tea Party turned that into a negative for Republicans.

If McConnell and fellow Republicans succeed in seizing control of the Senate from Democrats on Nov. 4, he would become Senate majority leader, a powerful position from which he could derail what remains of Obama's second-term legislative agenda.

"He doesn't have a deep reservoir of public regard that can keep getting him re-elected. He has to go out and fight to get re-elected," said Al Cross, a University of Kentucky journalism professor who spent 16 years as a political writer for Louisville's Courier-Journal newspaper.

A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found more than half of the state's voters view McConnell unfavorably, one-third describe him as an arrogant Washington insider and only 11 percent chose the words "real Kentuckian" to describe him.

McConnell, born in Alabama, has spent most of his life living in Kentucky. He attended high school there and graduated from the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky's law school. But many Kentucky voters think "'he's no longer one of us, he's one of the DC bubble types,'" said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark.

The poll still gave McConnell a slight 4-point edge over Grimes among likely voters, 46 percent to 42 percent.

McConnell told Reuters his tough reelection race had little to do with his popularity and more to do with his position as a leader in the Senate.

"When you accept the responsibility to be the leader of your party you get targeted by the other side and it just sort of goes with the turf," he said.

'That Was Dramatic'

McConnell's lack of charisma was evident at a recent campaign gathering in rural western Kentucky, where he answered the small crowd's welcoming applause with a clinical, 11-minute review of his achievements punctuated by references to a 10-year-old legislative "conference report," a "section 179" tax provision and "the $5 million per person estate tax exemption indexed for inflation in permanent law."

It was interrupted when a reporter accidentally knocked over a metal fuel can, setting off a loud clang.

"That was dramatic," McConnell said undramatically.

Still, McConnell has a knack for winning close races. In five previous Senate bids, he has earned more than 55 percent of the vote only once. In his last race, in 2008, he won with 53 percent.

Corporations and millionaires around the country have poured millions into a race against Grimes that eventually could rank as one of the most expensive ever.

By the end of June, McConnell had more than doubled the amount raised by Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, nearly $24 million to $11 million, and outside groups had spent another $14 million, split roughly evenly between the two, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A list of corporate donors to McConnell and his allied committees reads like the Fortune 500, from Citigroup to Raytheon. Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a group set up by McConnell allies, touts large contributions from real estate tycoon Donald Trump, venture capitalist Lawrence DeGeorge of Florida and oil executive Curtis Mewbourne of Texas.

Many of his ads, and much of his campaign stump speech, focus on linking Grimes to Obama. When Grimes aired an ad recently saying "I'm not Barack Obama," McConnell hit back with an ad linking her to Obama's agenda on gun control, foreign policy, Obamacare and coal regulations, even though she opposes the president on the latter.

Sense Of Humor

McConnell's campaign strategists also have tried to turn his public image to his advantage and show he has a sense of humor about it.

When Obama joked last year about the criticism he receives for not reaching out to Republican leaders - "Really? Why don't YOU have a drink with Mitch McConnell?" - the senator responded on Twitter with a smiling picture of himself sitting at a bar with a beer, facing an empty chair and a glass of red wine.

But Kentucky voters still have a hard time loving McConnell. Asked to pick a word or phrase to describe him, the most frequent choice was "experienced" at 39 percent, but "arrogant" and "Washington insider" were next at 33 percent each.

For Rodney Nace, 37, a maintenance technician at a uranium byproducts plant in Kevil, Kentucky, McConnell's experience counts for more than his personality.

"As long as he's got the experience and knows what's going on, it doesn't matter if he's boring or hyper or whatever," Nace said after hearing McConnell for the first time at a campaign event.

Today is World Tourism Day, when people reflect on the travel business. Especially for an island that depends on visitors for practically all its revenues, doing so is obviously important.

That this year's celebration comes just days before thousands of professionals gather here for the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) conference makes it all the more fitting. After all, this segment of the local hospitality industry has seen spectacular growth over the years and is about to break the two-million-passenger mark.

But, as Harbour Group of Companies CEO Mark Mingo has stated, the achievements so far are certainly no reason to sit back. Our competitors are becoming ever fiercer as they try to emulate that success and get a bigger piece of the pie.

His call to "reinvent cruise St. Maarten" therefore should not fall on deaf ears and to some extent the same can be said about the stay-over sector. The experience of guests in the long run determines the sustainability of any holiday destination.

Up to now "The Friendly Island" has done pretty well in that regard due to its natural beauty, unique character and hospitable inhabitants. However, others are slowly but surely catching up in terms of what they offer concerning accommodations, shopping, tours, attractions, entertainment, etc.

Not only that, but times are changing. While the traditional "sun, sea and sand" concept is still popular, people are spending less time lying on the beach, not in the last place because of advanced knowledge about the risk of skin cancer excessive exposure to solar rays brings.

Travellers generally are becoming increasingly aware also about other countries than their own and looking for something different, including cultural activities and environmentally interesting sights. Mind you, there already are plenty of those things available, but adding new and exciting ingredients where possible every so often helps keep the product lively.

Once the 2014 budget amendments are – finally – approved by Parliament and the purchase of Emilio Wilson Estate (EWE) can be completed it would seem a good idea, apart from conserving it, to create a place worth visiting to get information and a sense of the plantation's history and nature. Something similar might be considered for Mary's Fancy too by its recent buyer, the general pension fund APS.

The argument is not so much for additional building, but that resources and attributes already present could be put to more effective use without necessarily harming them. Besides, as the saying goes: What is good can always get better.

A lot of frustration is being expressed by voters about the meanwhile-confirmed latest political twist that will see a UP-led government take office after all. Many uttered disbelief as to how something like this was even possible, let alone allowed to take place.

Some reason that especially as DP candidate and caretaker minister Cornelius de Weever had failed to earn a Parliament seat outright in terms of preferential votes, he should not be able to "jump ship" and torpedo the seemingly-incoming NA/DP/US Party coalition of which his party was to be part. The truth is that the law makes no distinction as to how the seat was obtained.

It's also not the first time, because outgoing parliamentarian Patrick Illidge had declared himself an independent to support the then-UP/DP cabinet almost immediately after being elected on the NA slate in 2010. Moreover, no less than three other MPs followed his example and broke with their respective legislative fractions during the past four years.

Of course, the motives behind De Weever's move remain unclear, except that he reportedly did not get his wish to include a mandatory counterpart regulation for foreign employees in the governing programme to be presented to Governor Eugene Holiday by NA leader and – no longer – "formateur" William Marlin. The word is that De Weever then decided to go into Parliament rather than staying on as Minister of Health, Labour and Social Affairs, but wanted his aunt Millicent de Weever to be given that post instead.

The DP leadership probably didn't agree to the latter, which supposedly prompted the current cabinet member to join forces with UP and send the other three parties to the opposition benches in the process. If this turns out to be true, one should not be surprised to indeed see Millicent de Weever become his successor as minister.

That people are upset is understandable, but they need to keep in mind that UP was by far the biggest party, growing from six to seven seats, while NA dropped from seven to four and DP remained at two. The only other party that could be considered victorious was newcomer US Party with its two seats.

At the same time, getting together within hours after an election result to exclude the "winner" as NA, DP and US Party did, while perfectly legal, wasn't exactly elegant either. They may have had good reasons, including integrity issues, but traditionally the leader of the largest party would be given the space at least to try forming a government before alternative scenarios are explored.

The reality is that times have changed and, also in the former Netherlands Antilles, the expression "win at night but lose in the morning" often was used to describe similar developments. It's a parliamentary democracy in which the legislative majority at any given moment rules, nothing more and nothing less.

It seems the formation of a new government might not go as smoothly as expected after all. Although “formateur” William Marlin (NA) presented Governor Eugene Holiday with his report and the incoming NA/DP/US coalition’s governing programme yesterday, DP leader Sarah Wescot-Williams confirmed that her party’s number two vote-getter Cornelius de Weever had indicated meanwhile that he preferred to occupy his seat in Parliament rather than remain Minister of Labour, Health and Social Affairs as intended.

This creates a problem, because DP quickly will have to choose another nominee to become one of its two cabinet members, while the names of all seven candidate ministers already had been submitted. In addition, it means that Emil Lee no longer will be able to enter Parliament unless Wescot-Williams now changes her earlier decision to take up a seat in the legislature as its chair, and thus becomes a minister.

As the next legislature and government won’t take office until October 10 there is still some time to sort things out. But the most recent events don’t bode well for what was supposed to become the first Marlin cabinet that, of course, still would depend on De Weever for its minimal majority backing in Parliament.

According to persistent rumours, the latter may even take it a step further by going independent as parliamentarian to help put UP in government and send the other three parties to the opposition benches instead. These stories could not be confirmed last night, however.

A possible reason for this latest move is that the required counterpart rule for foreign employees wasn’t included in the draft governing programme as apparently desired by De Weever. The fact that as minister he easily could be “left outside looking in” should there be a change in government as happened with the leaders of both NA and UP during the past four years also could have played a role.

So, it appears the “open and stable government” the NA/DP/US coalition accord promised may not be that easy to achieve. The future will tell, but if there is to be a change, better it occur now than later when the Council of Ministers already has been installed.

Today's plenary debate in the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament on the proposal to take away the voting rights of foreign residents in the Caribbean Netherlands promises to be interesting. At least two opposition parties oppose such and strongly are suggesting alternatives.

The main problem is that foreigners can vote for the Island Councils of Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba, the members of which – once the new Constitution has been amended – consequently will be able to co-elect members of the First Chamber (Senate) in The Hague. This is considered undesirable and in the European part of the Netherlands non-citizens participate only in municipal, not provincial or national elections.

One of the possibilities mentioned is establishing a separate so-called Electoral College to help choose First Chamber members on behalf of only Dutch passport holders on these islands. Although it probably involves additional cost and manpower, the majority in the First Chamber apparently approves of this solution.

The latter is significant certainly in political terms, because the Rutte cabinet requires support in both chambers for its continued policies. Whether that pressure also will lead to a change in what's now on the table remains to be seen.

Another option reportedly backed in Saba is not to let Island Council members vote for the First Chamber at all. The reasoning is that local elections are considered more important there anyway.

However, especially in light of their distance it is a good idea to stimulate involvement of the three new special overseas public entities with the Dutch Government, so that a sense of belonging is promoted. In fact, the goal actually should be to enhance rather than decrease this input.

Something also to be kept in mind is that the three islands never really requested allowing foreign residents to vote in the first place, but this was more or less "imported" from the Netherlands as a result of the new constitutional relations within the kingdom. To take away that right again now wouldn't exactly send the correct message regarding their much-needed integration and active participation in society.

The armed robberies at no less than six Dutch-side supermarkets last week plus one more on Sunday are indeed a point of concern (see Monday paper). After all, practically everybody has reason to visit a food store at one point or another and the thought of possibly being there during a similar assault is not exactly a reassuring one.

But especially for storekeepers it must be frustrating, because there is little they can do to defend themselves. Many are unable to afford fulltime security in the business, while legally obtaining a firearm is far from easy these days.

In addition, recent events again show that having a gun as protection without a valid permit could land one in serious trouble and is certainly not recommendable. But even the use of licensed weapons entails risks in terms of further aggravating the situation or even ending up in jail if the violence used against the suspect is deemed to have been disproportionate.

The best bet is therefore to leave law enforcement to the competent local authorities, even though they usually don't arrive at the scene of the incident until afterward. Still, it remains important to cooperate with the investigation, if nothing else to prevent a repeat or in any case others from falling victim.

The police rightfully observed that as a rule there are plenty of witnesses to these robberies, but few make the effort to assist them with what they know and/or have seen. This should change, because the war on crime is being fought on behalf of the whole community.

People ought to keep in mind that they or their loved ones could be next, whether as direct targets or just by being "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Moreover, the delinquents involved are a real threat to the tourism economy that provides the livelihood of practically the entire population, so helping to track them down is most definitely in the general interest.

The reality is that these criminals, regardless whether they may be family, relatives, friends or acquaintances, must be considered public enemies and treated as such.

The fights at schools in the Cul de Sac area over two days reported on in Saturday's paper are a matter of concern. Security in and around classrooms was a big issue on the island not too long ago, particularly regarding secondary education, but it appeared the situation had improved since.

However, with the new academic year just a month old, certain students and even a few parents and other relatives evidently believed getting physical was the only way to resolve conflict. That is highly regrettable, also because it sets exactly the wrong example.

Judging from its reaction, the management of Milton Peter College (MPC) in any case takes the incidents very seriously, has already suspended two of the suspected trouble-makers and now will refer them to probation, with the threat of expulsion as ultimate remedy. The latter may seem a bit harsh, but one has to keep in mind the negative influence such actions have on the remaining students not only at MPC, but also at the other institution of learning involved, St. Maarten Vocational Training School (SVTS).

Make no mistake; violence can spread like cancer if kept unchecked, especially among the youth. The message that such behaviour under no circumstances will be accepted therefore must be crystal clear and unequivocal.

Furthermore, MPC Director Wim de Visser hit the nail right on the head when he said the community should examine its morals and values in terms of choosing to fight rather than dialogue whenever there is a difference of opinion. This disturbing trend unfortunately can be seen throughout all sectors, including, for example, in traffic where courtesy towards co-road-users in the past actually helped create the "Friendly Island" image that helped develop the all-important tourism economy.

Tolerance is a key component of a civilised country and should be taught starting at a young age. After all, youngsters who aren't open to the viewpoints of others, fail to respect them and don't learn that one can agree to disagree, to the extent that they quickly resort to using their fists rather than their tongues, are bound to run into problems later on in life.

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kernCUL DE SAC--Damian Williams stroked a brilliant unbeaten 107 to spur St. Maarten to first innings points over Anguilla in the Leeward Islands three-day match at the Caribe Lumber Ballpark, yesterday.

After Day Two, the scores in the match read Anguilla 200 all out and 131 for four, St. Maarten 266 all out.

Williams who resumed his innings from naught and his team in a troubling position of 75 for five, hit his first century in national colours. He mixed defense with calculated aggression to slam 15 fours and three fours in his highly entertaining innings.

The centurion and Moreland Le Blanc added 41 runs to the overnight total before the latter lost concentration to poke a simple catch to mid-wicket. Le Blanc contributed 30 off 53 balls (4x4).

After the first wicket fell for the day, the visitors had more reasons to celebrate with the quick dismissal of Lerry Baptiste for naught. Immediately after those two wickets, Williams dominated a 57 run partnership with debutant Mrinal Wadhwa. The debutant was then caught and bowled for two by his Leeward Islands U19 coach, Chaka Hodge.

At 178 for eight, the home team was faced with a crisis situation to reach 200 in order to obtain first innings points. Captain David walked to the crease and immediately stamped his authority on the run chase. And with Williams looking as solid as Fort Amsterdam, the pair took the home team over the 200 runs mark and further rough-up their opponent with some telling shots.

David slammed five fours and three sixes for an explosive 52 off just 35 balls.

The main wicket takers for Anguilla were Yannick Leonard with four for 62 in 25 overs and Hodge with three for 59 off 14 overs.

With 66 runs behind, Captain of Anguilla, Lyndell Richardson started off in ultra aggressive mode. He clobbered five sixes and two fours in 35 off only 26 balls. His aggressive batting led to his downfall with the total on 46. His opening partner Jovanni Gumbs was dismissed three runs later for 10 off 31 balls. They slipped into further trouble when Kacey Carty was bowled for two to make the score 57 for three.

Chaka Hodge and Montcin Hodge then batted purposeful to hold up local Captain Kenroy David and his rampant crew. Their partnership yielded 54 runs before David trapped Hodge in front for 19 off 78 balls after numerous appeals for lbw were turned down off the same bowler.

Darryl Doram grabbed the first three wickets to fall. His outstanding bowling figures reads 15-8-21-3.

At the close of play, Anguilla were 65 runs ahead with six second innings wicket in tact. The match continues today from 10am.

2014-09-26T100204Z_564874466_GM1EA9Q1E1801_RTRMADP_3_TENNIS-WOMEN-WUHANCHINA- A tournament plagued with falling seeds, withdrawals and retirements will at least enjoy a high-powered final after Petra Kvitova and Eugenie Bouchard set up a showdown at the inaugural Wuhan Open on Friday.

Canadian Bouchard will get the chance to avenge her crushing defeat by Kvitova in the Wimbledon final after she dispatched U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki 6-2 6-3.

Czech Kvitova beat Ukraine's Elina Svitolina 6-3 7-5.

Whoever wins Saturday's final will seal a place in the season-ending WTA Finals in Singapore next month.

Sixth seed Bouchard blasted 28 winners to overwhelm the resistance of Wozniacki who did not play badly.

"I think I played very aggressively, and it was all about trying to maintain it," Bouchard said.

"Of course I expected some resistance, and she definitely made me fight for every point, but I was happy with the way I was serving and stepping in and the way I kind of regathered by concentration."

Kvitova had lost her only previous meeting with Svitolina but was always the dominant player this time, winning the first set with ease and edging the second after surrendering an early break of service to the world number 34.

Organisers will be breathing a sigh of relief that they will at least have a marquee final.

"It's going to be nice to play Genie in the final, so we can have a repeat match of the final at Wimbledon," Kvitova, who won the Wimbledon final for the loss of only three games, said.

"She's a very good mover and plays very aggressively from the baseline - she takes the balls very early and returns very well. Those are some of the things she does great."

After local heroine Li Na announced her retirement from the sport on the eve of the tournament, world number one Serena Williams withdrew through illness and Maria Sharapova was bundled out by Swiss qualifier Timea Bacsinszky.

Former world number one Victoria Azarenka also withdrew before the tournament started while second seed Simona Halep lost in the second round and Jelena Jankovic retired with a back injury.

With Li standing seventh in the Singapore race despite her retirement, Wozniacki currently occupies the final qualification place for the season finale.

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