13-Year-Old Indian Won America's Scripps Nationals Spelling Bee

Sameer Mishra a 13-year-old Indian from West Lafayette, Indiana, was finally all business when he aced "guerdon" — a word that appropriately means "something that one has earned or gained" — to win the 81st version of America's Scripps Nationals Spelling Bee Friday night.

After watching his sister try three times to win the Scripps Nationals Spelling Bee, Sameer Mishra put himself on a mission. "I told my mom I was going to do the bee," Sameer said. "And if I was going to do it, I was going to win it one day. And I guess it happened."

Did it ever. With the sister coaching him, Sameer augmented his spelling talent with a sense of humor that often kept the Grand Hyatt Ballroom audience laughing.

"I'm not used to people laughing at my jokes — except for my sister," Sameer said.

Appearing in the bee for the fourth time and a top 20 finisher the last two years, Sameer clenched both fists and put his hands to his face after spelling the winning word. He won a tense duel over first-time participant Sidharth Chand, 12, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who finally stumbled on "prosopopoeia," a word describing a type of figure of speech.

Sameer was a crowd favorite throughout the tournament. When told one of his words in the semifinals was a dessert, he deadpanned: "That sounds good right now." He rolled his eyes and muttered "wonderful" when told that one of his words had five different language roots. He once asked "Are you sure there are no alternate pronunciations?" and later uttered "That's a relief" after initially mishearing the word "numnah" (a type of sheepskin pad).

And what did he have to say while hoisting the heavy trophy? "I'm really, really weak."

Sameer, who won more than $40,000 in cash and prizes, likes playing the violin and the video game "Guitar Hero" and hopes one day to be a neurosurgeon. He tried to watch the movie "Ratatouille" during the long wait before the finals but found he "couldn't really relax that much." His sister, Shruti, cried after her brother's victory on a day in which she received her own big news: She was accepted to Princeton.

"A big day for the family," said Sameer's father, Krishna Mishra, who moved to the United States from central India and teaches microbiology.

Sameer also became the first speller to win the title after misspelling his on-stage word in the preliminary round. He flubbed "sudation," yet managed to remain in the competition on the strength of a high score in the written test.

"When I missed that word in the preliminaries, I was really shocked and I was really sad," Sameer said. "I thought my chances were gone."

Third place went to Tia Thomas, 13, from Coarsegold, Calif., who was eliminated on "opificer" (a skilled or artistic worker) when she started the word with an "e" instead of an "o." Tia was one of the favorites, appearing in her fifth and final bee after an eighth-place finish a year ago.

"It was so frustrating. I was like, 'I know all these other words,'" Tia said. "This year has been awesome, but it's real disappointing."

The finals were aired live in prime time on ABC, and it appeared for a while that the broadcast could run late into the night. Twenty-four of the first 25 words were spelled correctly, with the dictionary-familiar competitors breezing through words such as "brankursine," "cryptarithm," and "empyrean" with barely a hitch.

Rose Sloan was so familiar with "alcarraza" (a type of jug) that the 13-year-old from River Forest, Ill., couldn't stop laughing in glee when pronouncer Jacques Bailly uttered it. She was later eliminated on "sheitel" (a wig worn by Jewish women).

It was somewhat surprising who didn't make the finals. There were no Canadians — and no Matthew Evans.

Matthew, also a favorite to win in his fifth and final appearance, was stunningly eliminated during the semifinal round Friday when he misspelled "secernent," a word dealing with secretion and one that somehow eluded him as he studied his personal 30,000-word list. He ended it with "-ant."

The 13-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., stayed in the comfort room for more than a half-hour, and his eyes were still red when he emerged.

"It's disappointing," said Matthew, choking back tears. "I know a lot of people were rooting for me."

All seven representatives from Canada were vanquished in a span of about 20-minutes in the first semifinal round. No Canadian has ever won the bee, but the country always fields a strong contingent. Nate Gartke of Alberta was last year's runner-up.

"Seven up, seven down," said Pam Penny of Ancaster, Ontario, whose daughter, 10-year-old Veronica, was eliminated on the French-rooted word "etagere." "Very disappointing. Especially for Canadians to go down on French words."

Among the spectators was 94-year-old Frank Neuhauser, the winner of the first national bee in 1925. Asked to spell his winning word from 83 years ago, Neuhauser rattled off the letters to "gladiolus" as if he were racing through his ABCs.

"It's an easy word," said Neuhauser, who attracted a long line of teen and preteen autograph-seekers. "Nobody could miss it, but the second (-place) girl did."

Neuhauser's prize was $500 in $20 gold pieces. He also was feted with a parade through his hometown of Louisville, Ky.

"It was a lot easier back then," Neuhauser told the audience. "There were only eight competitors instead of 288. I'd never make it now."

The 288 spellers that entered this year's bee was a record. Forty-five of them made it past the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds Thursday to compete on Friday.

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At Least 100 Nigerians Dead In Oil Pipeline Explosion

At least 100 people were killed and scores injured when fuel from a pipeline ruptured by a bulldozer caught fire and exploded today in a village near Nigeria's biggest city of Lagos, the Red Cross said.

The fireball engulfed homes and schools at Ijegun village in the Lagos district of Alimosho, and many of the dead, who included schoolchildren, were killed in the ensuing stampede as people fled in panic from the flames.

"About 100 people have so far been confirmed dead from the fire. We have so far rescued more than 20 people with injuries and taken them to hospital for treatment," a Red Cross official at the scene said.

The disaster was the latest in a series of pipeline explosions or blazes caused by damage or theft which have killed more than 1200 people since 2000 in Nigeria, the world's eighth largest oil exporter and Africa's top producer.

The pipeline rupture at Ijegun, a village about 50 kilometres from the centre of the sprawling coastal city of Lagos, occurred during work to build a road. A bulldozer moving earth struck the pipeline buried beneath the surface.

"I was returning home when I suddenly saw sparks of fire from where the grader (earthmover) was working," local resident John Egbowon said.

The fuel leaking from the broken pipe caught fire and exploded, sending people fleeing in panic.

"It was like hell was raining down on us, then everybody started running in different directions," Mr Egbowon said.

At least 15 homes were burned. More than 20 charred vehicles caught in the fire were visible afterwards in the street, as firefighters and volunteers tried to douse the flames with sand and water after the explosion.

Witnesses said that even after the main explosion, the ground around the fire was so hot that shoes melted.

Abandoned in panic, discarded school bags and sandals littered the compound of one school whose pupils had fled. A group of women wailed in grief nearby.

A network of oil and fuel pipelines criss-cross parts of Nigeria and explosions and fires that kill many are frequent.

In the creeks of the Niger Delta, the country's main oil producing zone, the pipelines are also the target of sabotage attacks by local militants seeking greater control over oil revenues and more development for their impoverished region.

Previous accidental pipeline blasts in Nigeria have been caused by vandals who drilled holes in the feeder lines, used to distribute mainly imported fuel, in order to steal petrol for sale on the black market.

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Florida Bush Fire Prompts Evacuations and Closed Roads.

Barely 24 hours after Bill Uszenski places 144 flags at the graves of deceased members of the Florida Fire Department, bush fires has shut down roads in central Florida and forced evacuations, authorities said.

A portion of Interstate 95 in Brevard County was shut down because of heavy smoke from a blaze near Malabar, the Orlando Sentinel reported on its Web site.

In another part of the county, a fire forced residents out of about 100 to 200 homes near Cocoa, said Brevard County Fire and Rescue spokesman Orlando Dominguez.

That fire was larger than 100 acres, Dominguez said.

Between 500 to 600 acres burned in Voulsia County, causing additional road closures and another evacuation, Florida Division of Forestry spokesman Timber Weller said.

Weller said he was not sure how many residents of the neighborhood, which is located near Daytona Beach, were forced to leave their homes. He said 20-mph winds and dry conditions made the fire especially challenging for crews.

"Control is extremely difficult and there's basically several small subdivisions in the area and fires burning, in some cases, very close to the homes," Weller said.

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Burmese Junta's Attitude Results In Mass Infanticide

A generation of children could be wiped out if help does not quickly get through to the cyclone-stricken villages of Burma, according to international officials frustrated by the military junta's obstruction of Western aid workers.

Desperate survivors of Cyclone Nargis poured out of the Irrawaddy Delta yesterday in search of food, water and medicine as calls mounted for the West to ignore the junta and stage a Berlin airlift-style operation to parachute aid to the 1.5million people hardest hit by the May 3 category-three storm.

The UN has appealed for $US187million in aid, even though it is still not confident the food, water, medicines, bedding and utensils flown in will make it to those most in need because of the junta's reluctance to allow international relief workers into the country.

Australia dramatically increased its aid contribution to the victims yesterday, pledging an extra $22 million to take its total offer to $25 million.

As calls grew for the UN to unilaterally organise a relief operation, charities warned that epidemics of "apocalyptic proportions" could be caused by delays in delivering supplies of fresh water and medicines.

Amid the chaos, the generals held a referendum on a new constitution on Saturday in all but 24 of the hardest-hit districts - a vote to legitimise and perpetuate their grip on power.

Latest estimates suggest that up to 116,000 people died when a tidal surge swept across the delta from ocean water whipped up by Nargis.

Of 1.7 million left homeless or in distress, many hundreds of thousands are children who are most vulnerable to waterborne diseases.

Reports of dysentery have already emerged, and there are fears of a measles epidemic.

Although some aid is reaching Burma, the junta has refused to let it be distributed by foreigners.

The generals, led by strongman Than Shwe, more used to cracking down on unarmed pro-democracy marchers than organising relief for their own people, insist on using their poorly equipped army to conduct a grossly mismanaged operation.

"We are very worried about a second disaster," said Greg Beck of the International Rescue Committee.

"We've had some early indications that cholera is breaking out ... also dengue fever and malaria. These are treatable, and we could contain them easily if we were able to get access."

Dysentery was reported to be taking a grip in parts of the delta, and World Vision Australia chief executive Tim Costello and other aid specialists voiced fears that outbreaks of the disease were on the approaches to Rangoon.

Mr Costello warned of a disaster of "apocalyptic proportions" if water, food, shelter and medical care for the estimated 1.5 million people hardest-hit by the storm were blocked.

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How Much More Will Rev. Jeremiah Wright Destroy Barack Obama's Presidential Bid


Voters have been running from Barack Obama since the Jeremiah Wright scandal erupted. A Zogby poll conducted this week in Indiana ahead of its key primary next Tuesday found that 21% of likely Democratic primary voters said they were less likely to vote for Obama as a result of his former pastor's statements. But why, exactly, are these and other voters fleeing? The answer could make the difference in Obama's chances to win the nomination and to pull out election victory in November. And it could tell us something about the state of racial politics in America.

There is a very small subset of voters who are sympathetic to Wright's expressions of respect for Louis Farakhan, his condemnation of America's 60-year bipartisan approach to Israel and his suspicions about U.S. involvement in the creation of the AIDS virus. The vast majority thinks his views on those issues are at least wrong, if not outright offensive. But what conclusion do those voters draw about Obama as a result? Do they imagine that Obama believes the same things? Or do they think Obama disagrees with them, but question his credibility because of his belated disavowal of the preacher who holds them?

Obama can marshal a lot of evidence to show he doesn't believe what Wright believes: his personal history, his professional life, his voting record all show he has fairly mainstream if somewhat liberal views on U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

But Wright's inflammatory statements in the past week forced Obama to make a renunciation that undermined the credibility of his well-received Philadelphia speech on race, in which he explained why he listened to Wright's speeches to begin with. "The difficulty people would have is precisely that: if he has been going to that church for a long time how could he not know?" says Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center. The question now for Obama is which is worse — people thinking you agree with Wright, or people not believing your high-minded explanations for associating with him.

A Rasmussen poll out Friday tries to peel back some of these issues, and the answers are not particularly heartening for Obama. In a survey of 800 likely voters, Rasmussen finds that 58% think Obama has denounced Wright because it's politically convenient, while 30% say he did so because he was outraged (13% say they're not sure). Only 33% say they think Obama was surprised by Wright's views, while 52% say they think he was not.

Just as troubling for Obama, a majority of people associate his views with those of Wright: despite his denials, 56% said that it was somewhat or very likely that Obama shares some of Wright's views, while 35% said it was not very or not at all likely (8% were unsure). The survey shows a racial divide in the response: 55% of whites think Obama shares some of Wright's views, versus 47% of blacks and 74% of those identifying themselves as "other."

Associating Obama with Wright's radical views raises the specter of racial stereotyping. Those who impute to Obama radical views about AIDS, Israel or black nationalism are knowingly discounting his stated positions and making assumptions that may be influenced by his race. Just how much of that is going on is hard to measure. But if there's a racial component to voters' abandonment of Obama in the wake of the Wright affair, it's safe to say those voters aren't coming back.

Wounds caused by damaged credibility, of course, are also hard to heal. "The problem with credibility," says Pew's Keeter, "Is that people think of it as a fundamental character trait. Some measure of lack of honesty is damaging because it leads to a broader generalization."

Obama's approach to the problem appears to be to empahsize his mainstream views and shore up his credibility through other associations. Endorsements from people like former Hillary Clinton supporter and onetime Democratic chairman Joe Andrew "can help you stop the damage from this kind of affair," says Keeter. Maybe. But at least repairing damaged credibility is possible; healing the country's racial divide is a lot more difficult.

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Morgan Tsvangirai or Robert Mugabe, Run-off Election Will Tell Who

More than a month after Zimbabwe went to the polls, electoral authorities on Friday finally announced a result in the presidential race: a do-over. The Zimbabwe Election Commission said opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had won 47.9% of the vote to President Robert Mugabe's 43.2%. That means that, officially, no candidate has won an outright victory of more than 50%, a scenario which, under Zimbabwean electoral law, mandates a second round run-off within three weeks. "Since no candidate has received the majority of the valid vote cast... a second election shall be held on a date to be advised by the commission," chief elections officer Lovemore Sekeramayi told reporters in Harare.

The admission that Mugabe did not win the March 29 poll is not, as some have suggested, a landmark concession on the part of the regime that has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years. Rather, it signals Mugabe's intention to hold onto power. Reacting to the result, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which says its own calculations show its leader won more than 50%, angrily rejected the result. MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti claimed at a press conference in South Africa that the vote count had been rigged. "Morgan Tsvangirai is the president of the republic of Zimbabwe to the extent that he won the highest number of votes," he added. "Morgan Tsvangirai has to be declared the president of Zimbabwe."

The election commission is appointed by Mugabe's Zanu-PF regime and its independence has therefore been suspect. The rationale behind the regime's month-long wait before releasing the result and, then, its announcement of another round seems simple: delay and re-group. Mugabe's regime indicated a few days after the poll that it knew Tsvangirai had beaten Mugabe. (The state-controlled Herald newspaper reported Mugabe had failed to win re-election and predicted a second round run-off.) Meanwhile, the Election Commission announced that the MDC had won a majority in parliament and a few days ago confirmed that result after a recount.

The regime could hardly have been surprised that it lost the vote — Zimbabwe is a country with 80% unemployoment, 100,000% inflation and life expectancy in the mid 30s. But with a month to come to terms with that idea, it had time to gather its forces for a counterattack.

How does it plan to do that? Since the election, militias claiming loyalty to the regime have fanned out across the country, intimidating, beating and even killing opposition supporters. The MDC says around 20 of its members have died, a number impossible to verify because foreign journalists continue to be banned from entering Zimbabwe. But neither side disputes that hundreds of opposition activists have been arrested, nor that the seizure of farms belonging to opposition supporters has resumed, nor that several foreign journalists have been arrested and deported. This nationwide campaign of repression seems aimed at coercing support for Mugabe, and providing him with a sufficient electoral boost to win a run-off.

Such disdain for the democratic process begs a question: why bother with elections at all? Other African tyrannies have dispensed with the awkward trial of popular votes altogether, and ruled as unapologetic autocracies. So why the need for a veneer of respectability, however thin, in Zimbabwe? The answer lies in the psychology of Mugabe and his fellow liberation leaders, many of whom came from a background of elite academia. Mugabe himself has seven degrees, most of them earned during the 11 years he spent in prison when the country was called Rhodesia.

Though their regimes may be thuggish, these men are not thugs themselves. They are intellectuals and, as firm believers that their various opponents are merely puppets of the same imperial enemy they have always faced, it is intellectually crucial that they beat their former colonial masters at their own game. Western democracy, as they see it, is hollow. Western governments that were democratically elected at home pursued autocratic colonialism abroad. Even after the end of the age of imperialism, neo-imperialists funneled support to compliant dictators around the world, and relentlessly attempted to fix the rules of the global economy in their favor. According to this view, employing a little election tinkering here and a little intimidation there is merely playing by rules set by the West.

Whatever the merits of that argument, it is unlikely that Mugabe's regime will make the same mistake twice. One longtime resident of the capital of Harare warned in an e-mail a few days ago that Zimbabwe's opposition is in danger of losing its best chance at making a change. "What I find most frightening is that already the opposition and elements of the international community are subsiding back into apathy," he wrote. "I am hearing people saying, 'Well, you know, he'll get away with it this time, but he won't last forever, and there'll be another chance in five years.' There won't be. If he doesn't go, there will not be another chance. There will not be another election in five years time unless Zanu-PF is the only party contesting. There will be no MDC — everyone who opposes Zanu-PF will be in jail or in exile. There is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity. This month. Perhaps next. After that, the country will be stolen from us for good."

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Vito J. Fossella, NY Congressman Charged With DWI

A Republican congressman representing New York City was arrested early Thursday outside Washington and charged with driving while intoxicated, police said.

Vito J. Fossella, who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, was arrested some time between midnight and 2 a.m., said Lt. Ray Hazel, spokesman for the Alexandria Police Department.

He was charged with driving while intoxicated as a first offense, Hazel said, which under Virginia law requires a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher.

In a statement Thursday, Fossella apologized for his conduct.

"Last night I made an error in judgment," Fossella said. "As a parent, I know that taking even one drink of alcohol before getting behind the wheel of a car is wrong. I apologize to my family and the constituents of the 13th Congressional District for embarrassing them, as well as myself."

Hazel said he could provide no further details on the arrest, including Fossella's exact blood-alcohol level or where in the city he was arrested.

Fossella, 43, is the lone Republican member of the New York City congressional delegation.

He faced a surprisingly strong re-election challenge in 2006 and is bracing for a similar fight this year. His candidacy has drawn the support from national Republican leadership in recent weeks, including Vice President Dick Cheney.

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