Most wanted Roy Lawrence Piechocki arrested in Bulgaria


Roy Lawrence PiechockiImage copyright
Interpol

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Roy Lawrence Piechocki was arrested after being found in a rented flat in a block in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

A British man wanted by police for seven years has been arrested in Bulgaria, authorities say.

Roy Lawrence Piechocki, 56, has been wanted by Interpol since 2011 for 10 counts of sexually exploiting a minor in the United States.

Piechocki, from Hillingdon in west London, was arrested after being found in a rented flat in a block in Veliko Tarnovo, police said.

He is now being held in the local police detention centre.

The Ministry of Interior said it was the result of a two-month investigation that was a joint effort between local police, the Bulgarian special cybercrime unit and the FBI.

Piechocki had fake identity papers and had altered his appearance, police said.

Bulgarian police also confiscated three computer devices, which they say contained pornographic images of young children.

March For Our Lives: Huge gun-control rallies sweep US


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Media caption‘Our message to the world is…’

Hundreds of thousands of protesters are taking to the streets across the US to call for tighter gun control.

The March For Our Lives movement arose after 17 deaths in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month.

Student leader and Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez gave a powerful speech at the main Washington DC event.

After listing the names of the victims, she stayed silent on stage for six minutes, 20 seconds – the time it took for them to be killed.

More than 800 sister protests were planned nationwide and abroad, with solidarity events taking place in Edinburgh, London, Geneva, Sydney and Tokyo.

As events began to draw to a close on the US east coast, they continued on the west, including a major demonstration in Los Angeles.

  • As it happened: March For Our Lives
  • In pictures: Marches across the US and worldwide

What happened in Washington?

Huge crowds – including a high proportion of young people and children – gathered along Pennsylvania Avenue, with placards reading “Protect kids not guns” and “Am I next?”.

Singers Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind hit musical Hamilton, performed on a stage erected in front of the US Capitol building.

Image copyright
Getty Images

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Jennifer Hudson – who has lost her mother, brother and nephew to gun violence – sang Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin

The music was interspersed with speeches from impassioned youth leaders.

“We will continue to fight for our dead friends,” said speaker Delaney Tarr, a Parkland student.

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Media caption“He pulls out a silver pistol and points it in my face” – student Mya Middleton speaks of her chilling encounter with a gunman

Some came from children who are just 11 years old, including Naomi Wadler, from Virginia, who spoke “to represent African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper”.

  • The 11-year-old American with a rallying cry

‘My lost soulmate’

By Marianna Brady, BBC News, Washington

The crowds started to gather in the early hours of the morning outside the US Capitol. Chants for “no more NRA” and “no more guns” erupt every few minutes at random.

“He was my soulmate,” said Victoria Gonzalez, looking down at a sign of her boyfriend Joaquin Oliver.

Valentine’s Day – 14 February – started off as a great day for Victoria. “Joaquin and I exchanged gifts in the morning and he walked me to class. I was so happy.”

Later that day, she would learn that Joaquin was one of 17 people shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas school.

“It wasn’t real,” she said, standing in a crowd of several thousand ahead of the march.

“It’s taken a while for it to sink in. I’m here today so no-one ever has to face this again. It gives me a lot of hope seeing how many people are out here supporting us. It feels like the whole entire world is on our side,” Victoria said.

Read on: ‘It feels like the world is on our side’

How did the movement start?

The 14 February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland was one of a long line of school shootings in the US but the worst since Sandy Hook in 2012, when 26 people were killed.

Campaigning by Parkland students gained widespread support, with Ms Gonzalez one of the most outspoken figures, gaining more than a million Twitter followers in a matter of weeks.

Image copyright
Reuters

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A tearful Emma Gonzalez during her minutes of silence

Survivors of other shootings have also joined the movement, alongside relatives of gun violence victims and anyone moved by their stories.

The students staged a nationwide school walk-out earlier this month.

They want to seize on public outrage to convince US politicians to take decisive action such as banning the sale of assault weapons.

  • The teenagers taking on the US gun lobby

On Thursday, 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey died, after being shot in the head by a classmate in Maryland earlier in the week. A second student was injured in the attack.

How much support do they have?

Although the turnout during Saturday’s marches has been huge, the issue still divides Americans.

The right to bear arms is protected under the second amendment of the US constitution and the National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby remains highly influential.

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Media captionAmericans gathered across the country for gun control rallies
  • Why I’m marching on Washington
  • America’s gun culture in 10 charts

On Saturday afternoon, the White House released a statement praising the “many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today”.

It outlined steps the government is taking to tackle gun violence:

  • Banning bump stocks (devices which allow semi-automatic rifles to fire like machine-guns)
  • Enacting the STOP School Violence Act, which seeks to improve school security
  • Increasing training for students, staff and local law enforcement.
  • Improving criminal background records so gun buyers are properly vetted before making a purchase

Some protesters were disappointed that President Donald Trump, who is at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for the weekend, did not personally tweet a message of support during the protests.

  • What do young conservatives think?

How did other cities join in?

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Media captionSandy Hook survivors march with Parkland

There were protests all across the nation, from New York and Los Angeles to Houston and Anchorage, Alaska.

A demonstration was also held in Parkland, with relatives of the victims speaking to crowds.

In Scotland, families affected by the 1996 school shooting in Dunblane gathered a solidarity gathering outside the US consulate in Edinburgh.

In London, several hundred people – a mix of US immigrants and allies – also met at the new US embassy in Vauxhall.

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Media captionProtesters around the world are supporting stricter US gun laws

What other steps have been taken since Parkland?

The state of Florida passed a gun control law that raises the legal age for buying rifles but also allows the arming of school staff. The NRA sued the state, saying the law was unconstitutional

Several major companies cut ties with the NRA amid a #BoycottNRA campaign, while chains like Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods announced new restrictions on gun sales.

Some 69% of Americans think gun laws should be tightened, according to a new poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, up from 61% in October 2016.

Egypt’s Election Should Be a Lock. So Why Is President Sisi Worried?


Tensions spiked in the early stages of the election when two former generals stepped forward to challenge him. He quickly dispatched their bids — one man is in jail while the second, after a month in detention, disavowed his ambitions.

Few analysts gave either candidate much chance of beating Mr. Sisi, who retains broad support for his tough policies against Islamist militancy. But his unsparing reaction to their bids stoked speculation that they enjoyed support from a corner of the security establishment, a smidgen of dissent that Mr. Sisi found intolerable.

The security apparatus, which removed Mr. Sisi’s predecessor in 2013, poses the only real challenge to his power, said Robert Springborg, an Egypt scholar at King’s College. “The election puts that into relief,” he said. “It provides the shadows on the wall of the struggle that’s going on underneath.”

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Sami Anan in Cairo in 2012. The former chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces backed out of the 2014 presidential election after he was attacked in pro-state news outlets.

Credit
Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Pharaoh or Mamluk?

Egypt’s modern leaders are often likened to pharaohs — all-powerful leaders of a disciplined state. Mr. Sisi has encouraged that image, whether standing imperiously at the prow of a boat plowing through the Suez Canal, or posing against the backdrop of the pyramids.

But a more apt historical analogy, some say, lies with the Mamluks, a fractious military caste that ruled Egypt in the Middle Ages. For almost three centuries, Mamluk sultans ruled from Cairo’s citadel, but their supremacy rested on a cabal of restless subordinates who jockeyed for supremacy.

Under Mr. Sisi, a tight circle of generals and security chiefs wield vast economic and political power, overseeing secretive business and media empires while cracking down on any hint of opposition. Deciphering the inner workings of this circle is notoriously difficult, and the subject of a sort of Kremlinology among Western officials. But this year’s election seemed to crack open the lid on hidden strains.

That the two retired generals would run for office was no surprise. Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander who served briefly as prime minister in 2011, ran for president in 2012. Sami Anan, who led Egypt’s army from 2005 to 2012, backed out of the 2014 presidential election after he was attacked in pro-state news media.

But this time they offered rare public criticism of Mr. Sisi and proposed to loosen his harsh rule.

Mr. Shafik, in his video message to launch his campaign, said: “A true democracy and basic human rights are not a given.” Mr. Anan tendered an olive branch to the young revolutionaries who helped oust President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and who have been hounded by Mr. Sisi.

Mr. Anan was charged with breaching military rules and thrown in jail, where aides say he has been interrogated by military officers in balaclavas. Mr. Shafik was detained at a luxury hotel for a month before he publicly withdrew his candidacy.

A third military-linked candidate, an American-educated officer named Col. Ahmed Konsowa, was court-martialed in December and sentenced to six years imprisonment.

“Their attempted candidacies said to the Egyptian public that Sisi is doing a bad job and Egypt needs new leadership,” said Amy Hawthorne, an Egypt expert at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “That’s very provocative.”

Mr. Sisi rejected the notion that he pushed the other candidates out of the race.

“It is not my fault,” he said in a television interview on Tuesday. “I swear to God I wished there would have been more candidates for people to choose who they want. But they were not ready yet. There is no shame in this.”

With his rivals derailed, Mr. Sisi sought to shore up his own military credentials. He announced a sweeping military drive against Islamic State militants in Sinai and last month donned his old army uniform to open a new military command center.

In improvised remarks in January, he warned that Egypt’s security would be compromised “over the dead body of the military” — a statement that appeared to be aimed as much at internal critics as at the militants.

And he increased pressure on the news media. A journalist who interviewed Mr. Anan’s running mate was jailed. Last month, the government expelled Bel Trew, a reporter with The Times of London, despite a private protest from the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. The news organization says it has not received an explanation.

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Mr. Sisi, center, also enjoys the support of powerful foreign allies like Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

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Egyptian Presidency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sisi Forever?

To some analysts, Mr. Sisi is merely consolidating his power as he heads into a second four-year term. Despite the repression, many Egyptians still support him as an antidote to the turmoil they suffered after the Arab Spring.

The economy is improving as a result of tough economic reforms, many prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, even if they have inflicted painful inflation on tens of millions of poor Egyptians.

Mr. Sisi also enjoys the support of powerful foreign allies like President Donald J. Trump and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who paid Mr. Sisi a three-day visit this month. He has drawn closer to Egypt’s old enemy, Israel, through discreet cooperation on counterterrorist operations in Sinai.

But Mr. Sisi has also made many contentious decisions. The military’s prominent role in running the economy is unpopular with businessmen and some military officers, a senior western diplomat in Cairo said.

The decision to hand two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia in 2016 was opposed by several senior defense officials, Ms. Hawthorne said, citing Egyptian media reports.

“I think it’s a vulnerability for Sisi,” she said. “He can try to move past it but people don’t forget.”

Although Mr. Sisi has faced talk of dissent before — in 2015 a military court reportedly convicted 26 officers on charges of plotting to overthrow him — experts say he is believed to enjoy staunch support among the military high command.

But they also note that he is tightening his inner circle, relying more heavily on his family. One son, Mahmoud, is a senior figure in the General Intelligence Service and has been an interlocutor in meetings with American officials in Washington. Another son works in an influential anti-corruption body.

Whatever Mr. Sisi’s popularity may be, this election will not be a reliable indicator. Egypt’s weak, fractured opposition has already written it off. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that briefly enjoyed power until the military takeover that brought Mr. Sisi to power in 2013, is outlawed.

Mr. Sisi’s only challenger, Moussa Moustapha Moussa, held just two public events, one of which was attended by more journalists than supporters. “I’m no puppet,” he insisted to The Guardian this week.

On Wednesday, Mr. Sisi called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory last weekend, having also congratulated China’s Xi Jinping on his unanimous election in the National People’s Congress.

Both leaders have found way to circumvent term limits, and there are signs that Mr. Sisi has similar ambitions.

Last August, a member of Parliament loyal to Mr. Sisi proposed a constitutional amendment to extend term limits. In November, Mr. Sisi insisted he would not seek any changes.

Mr. Sadat, the opposition politician and nephew of his namesake, Egypt’s former president, said a broad coalition of opposition groups had started to hunt for candidate to contest the 2022 election — when, if the proposed constitutional changes take place, they expect to face Mr. Sisi again.

“Sisi hates politics and that’s what we are seeing in this election,” he said. “What worries me is what will come next. Are we going to see a Chinese model? That is the issue.”

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Vote Leave 'broke spending limits' in Brexit referendum


Shahmir Sanni on Channel 4 NewsImage copyright
Channel 4 News

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Shahmir Sanni told Channel 4 News that the official Brexit campaign used a different group, BeLeave, to overspend

Vote Leave broke the law during the EU referendum by exceeding legal spending limits, a Brexit activist has claimed.

Shahmir Sanni told Channel 4 News that the official Brexit campaign used a different group, BeLeave, to overspend.

Vote Leave chief Dominic Cummings has already denied the claim and said he checked with the Electoral Commission before donating money to the group.

Mr Sanni has also criticised Vote Leave manager Stephen Parkinson, his ex-boyfriend, for outing him as gay.

“I know that, that Vote Leave cheated… I know that, that people have been lied to and that the referendum wasn’t legitimate,” Mr Sanni told Channel 4 News.

“Leaving the European Union, I agree with.

“But I don’t agree with losing what it means to be British in that process; losing what it means to follow the rules; losing what it means to be quite literally a functioning democracy.”

Mr Sanni told the Observer that Vote Leave donated £625,000 to the founder of BeLeave, Darren Grimes, before the June 2016 referendum.

Vote Leave would have gone over its campaign spending limit of £7m if it had spent the money.

Mr Sanni claimed Mr Grimes was not in control of how the money from Vote Leave was spent and everything they did they passed through ground campaign manager Mr Parkinson – who is now the prime minister’s political secretary.

He told the newspaper that most of the donation went to Canadian data firm Aggregate IQ, which has been linked to Cambridge Analytica – the firm facing claims it amassed the data of millions of people without their consent.

Mr Sanni said he and two other pro-Brexit friends reported the overspending allegation to the Electoral Commission on Thursday.

  • Vote Leave chief denies Cambridge Analytica links
  • Cummings hits out

“In effect they used BeLeave to overspend, and not just by a small amount… Almost two thirds of a million pounds makes all the difference and it wasn’t legal,” said Mr Sanni, who first worked as a Vote Leave outreach volunteer before working for BeLeave.

“They say that it wasn’t coordinated, but it was. And so the idea that… the campaign was legitimate is false.”

Vote Leave has previously said it made the donation to Mr Grimes because it was coming up to its £7m spending limit and wanted a way of using the £9.2m it had raised from individuals and companies on campaigning activities.

The campaign separately spent £2.7m on the services of AIQ in the run-up to the EU referendum.

BeLeave was set up to give young pro-Brexit campaigners a voice during last year’s referendum.

Separate campaign groups could spend up to £700,000 if they registered as permitted participants.

In a blog on Friday, Mr Cummings denied allegations of links between his campaign and Cambridge Analytica and said the claims were “factually wrong, hopelessly confused, or nonsensical”.

Lawyers for AIQ told Channel 4 News that it had “never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica” and it had “never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity”.

‘Misleading’

In a “personal statement” issued to Channel 4 News, Stephen Parkinson denied the allegations and said he was confident he had stayed within the law and spending rules “at all times”.

He said he was “saddened” by the “factually incorrect and misleading” statements from Mr Sanni, who now works for the Taxpayer’s Alliance.

Earlier, Mr Sanni said – in a statement issued through his lawyers – that Mr Parkinson had outed him as gay in his original response.

Mr Sanni, a British Pakistani, said he was forced to tell his family and that relatives in Pakistan could be in danger as a result.

In his original statement, published on Mr Cummings’ blog on Friday, Mr Parkinson said he dated Mr Sanni for 18 months, before splitting up in September 2017.

“That is the capacity in which I gave Shahmir advice and encouragement, and I can understand if the lines became blurred for him, but I am clear that I did not direct the activities of any separate campaign groups,” he said.

Mr Grimes told Channel 4 News he denied the allegations.

A solicitor for Vote Leave told the programme the campaign had been cleared twice on this issue by the Electoral Commission.

The Electoral Commission said: “The commission has a number of investigations open in relation to campaigners at the EU referendum; it does not comment on live investigations.”

Gary Lincoff, 75, Dies; Spread the Joy of Mushrooms Far and Wide


Mr. Lincoff loved exotic fantastical-looking mushrooms with names like violet-branched coral and eyelash cup and bearded tooth and wolf’s-milk slime, and he loved nondescript little brown blots that sprouted on dead sticks. He was often asked which mushroom was his favorite, and he invariably replied, “The one that’s in front of me right now.”

“He inspired literally thousands of people to overcome their fear of fungi,” said Paul Stamets, another member of the tiny cohort of celebrity mycologists. “No matter how dumb your question was, he never humiliated you, he never put you down. He never believed there was such a thing as a stupid question.”

Gary Henry Lincoff was born on Oct. 3, 1942, in Pittsburgh to Leonard Lincoff, an optometrist, and the former Bette Forman. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1963 with a bachelor’s in philosophy, a passion for Thoreau and an unfulfilled sense of purpose.

He left law school at George Washington University because “he didn’t admire his professors,” his wife, Irene Liberman, said. She met him in 1967, when he was doing graduate work in English literature in Pittsburgh.

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Mr. Lincoff, who led mushroom hunts as far afield as India and Siberia, examined the day’s haul after the 2011 Bronx foray.

Credit
Alan Zale for The New York Times

In addition to Ms. Liberman, a graphic designer, Mr. Lincoff is survived by their son, Noah, and a younger brother, Bennett.

The couple moved to New York in 1968, and Mr. Lincoff set out to write a novel about a draft dodger who waits out the Vietnam War living in Central Park. In his research he got hung up on a question: What would the protagonist eat?

“I took six months off to learn everything there was to know about survival in the city — wild foodwise,” Mr. Lincoff told The New York Times in 1978. “I began to see that every tree, every weed, wasn’t alike. I got into minutiae.”

He and Ms. Liberman led forays to gather edible plants for suppers of acorn burgers, pokeweed shoots and Juneberry pies. In 1971, the couple went on their first walk with the New York Mycological Society. “I said, ‘Let’s promise not to eat anything,’ and we ate nine wild mushrooms that day,” Ms. Liberman recalled. Mr. Lincoff had found his calling.

He steeped himself in mushroom studies and eventually persuaded the New York Botanical Garden to let him teach despite his lack of formal credentials. In 1978, he published a book on toxic and hallucinogenic mushroom poisoning and was soon recruited to write the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, which was published in 1981 and is in its 31st printing. He served for nine years as president of the North American Mycological Association.

(Mr. Lincoff had never tried hallucinogenic mushrooms when he wrote the poisoning book, Ms. Liberman said, but when he finally did, in the 1980s, “He was delighted.” At least once, he found the hallucinogen Gymnopilus junonius, known as “laughing gym,” in his beloved Central Park. “I came out of the park with a big cluster of it and I walked smack into three cops,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is it.’ But they just said, ‘You better be careful if you don’t know those.’ I said, ‘I’m going to take these back and study them.’ ”)

Mr. Lincoff helped found the Telluride Mushroom Festival in 1981. It was conceived by a Denver radiologist and mushroom-lover, Emanuel Salzman, as an alternative to stuffier mycological conferences.

“We had an ‘Edibility Unknown’ party every year that would horrify serious professional mycologists,” said the alternative-medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, another festival co-founder. No one ever got sick, Dr. Weil said, though the pioneers discovered that one species tasted like old tires.

Mr. Lincoff was in demand as a tour leader and headed expeditions to more than 30 countries, on every continent except Antarctica. When he was back in New York, he served as lecture coordinator and animating presence of the New York Mycological Society. Three years ago, he decided that unlike other mushroom clubs, the society should hold walks year round.

This past New Year’s Day, with the mercury around 10 degrees, he led a walk in Central Park.

“We walked for two hours and found almost 50 species,” said Vivien Tartter, one of Mr. Lincoff’s many acolytes. Someone found a cluster of Eutypella scoparia — tiny hairlike tufts too small to be seen without a loupe — growing on a twig. “Gary was very excited.”

Continue reading the main story

Baselworld: Tag Heuer chief takes swipe and his industry


Jean-Claude BiverImage copyright
AFP

One on the most powerful men in luxury retailing has said it is time to stop seeing smartwatch makers Apple and Google as threats.

Jean-Claude Biver, who runs watchmakers Tag Heuer, Hublot, and Zenith, said the smartwatch will boost his industry.

Mr Biver was instrumental in reviving the Swiss industry after it was devastated in the 1970s and ’80s by Japan’s quartz battery revolution.

The entrepreneur also warned about the impact of a US-China trade war.

Speaking during the Baselworld watch and jewellery fair in Switzerland, the global showcase for the Swiss industry, Mr Biver said Apple and Samsung should be invited to exhibit at the event.

But Mr Biver, now head of watches at French luxury goods giant LVMH, said traditionalists in the industry would be against it. “A lot of people wouldn’t want Apple here. I know people who say this [event] should only be for the Swiss.

“The Apple watch is a watch: it’s a bracelet that gives you information: hours, minutes, the date.

“But there are too many people here [in Basel] who don’t think it’s a watch. There are people here who say, if you’re not Swiss you can’t be here. It’s like telling, say, Kia they can’t come to the Geneva Motor Show because they are South Korean.”

  • Baselworld: Watching over tradition and heritage
  • Swiss watchmakers smarten up their act

Mr Biver’s sideswipe at sections of the industry will resonate because of his decades of experience in deal-making and reviving brands, especially after Japanese manufacturers emerged as powerful competitors with their quartz battery products.

His early use of product placements, notably in James Bond films, and celebrity endorsements are now routine in the luxury goods sector.

Apple sold about 20 million smartwatches last year, and many analysts think it will be the next big challenge for the Swiss industry.

Baselworld saw the launch of several hybrid smartwatches, which mix traditional mechanical features with connectivity.

But, crucially, the technological lead at Apple and Samsung has made them hugely popular among younger consumers.

Mr Biver said on of the biggest challenges facing his industry is getting a new generation to buy traditional watches.

“Apple and Samsung are promoters of the watch because they teach people to wear something on their wrist.

“Imagine a generation who did not wear any watch. It would be much more difficult for us to sell them something.”

The traditional watch makers should embrace Apple and Samsung rather than run away because they could learn so much, the industry veteran said.

Mr Biver said a far greater threat was the current geo-political situation. A China-US trade war and growth of protectionism threatens to bring the luxury sector’s recovery to a halt.

“When the mood changes to pessimism, the luxury sector suffers… At this moment, we are on the verge of something that could be damaging.”

He said there had recently been a big turnaround in luxury goods sales in China, and particularly in watches among young people. “China has been the driving force in the recovery” of luxury goods, he said.

Swiss watch exports were up 12.8% in the first two months of the year, with Hong Kong and China both rising around 30%.

Stormy Daniels, Trump’s Unlikely Foe, Is ‘Not Someone to Be Underestimated’


To many in the capital, Ms. Clifford, 39, has become an unexpected force. It is she, some in Washington now joke, and not the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who could topple Mr. Trump.

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A 1997 photo of Ms. Clifford, then Stephanie Gregory, taken from her high school yearbook.

Those who know her well have registered the moment differently. Ms. Clifford has subsisted amid the seamier elements of a business often rife with exploitation and unruly fare; more than a few of her film titles are unprintable. But for most of her professional life, Ms. Clifford has been a woman in control of her own narrative in a field where that can be uncommon. With an instinct for self-promotion, she evolved from “kindergarten circuit” stripper to star actress and director, and occasional mainstream success, by her late 20s. Why would a piece of paper and an executive legal team set her back?

“She’s the boss, and everyone knew it,” Nina Hartley, one of the longest-working performers in the industry, said about Ms. Clifford.

“The Renaissance porn star,” said Ron Jeremy, once perhaps the most famous porn star of all.

“She was a very serious businesswoman and a filmmaker and had taken the reins of her career,” said Judd Apatow, who directed her cameos in the R-rated comedies “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” “She is not someone to be underestimated.”

In her own scripts, she has gravitated at times toward more ambitious productions, with elaborate plotlines and nods to politics.

Her standards on set can be exacting. Ms. Clifford does not mind firing people, colleagues said, banishing those who flub a scene or gild a résumé. She has demanded that an actor change his “dumb” stage name because it would look silly on her promotional materials. And she has coaxed singular performances from her charges, once guiding Mr. Jeremy through a scene in which he sang to her small dog.

Her competitive streak is not well concealed. After industry award nominations were announced one year, Ms. Clifford, who had amassed more than a dozen such honors, reminded an interviewer that she had been snubbed in the categories of cinematography and editing.

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A picture in a 1999 calendar featuring dancers from a strip club in Baton Rouge, La. Ms. Clifford worked there before entering the pornographic industry.

Credit
The Penthouse Club in Baton Rouge, La.

When opportunities have presented themselves outside her domain — a Maroon 5 music video, a public flirtation with a Senate run in Louisiana, an appearance at a celebrity golf tournament that included a future president — Ms. Clifford has made the most of the publicity, helping her carve out a comfortable life in the Dallas suburbs.

She has a daughter, a third husband and an expensive hobby: equestrian shows. “She blends right in,” said Packy McGaughan, a trainer on the competition circuit. “A pretty girl riding a horse.”

More recently, inconspicuousness has been elusive in her life, but that is largely by design. Ms. Clifford has leveraged her newfound crossover fame into a national stripping tour, with scheduled dates through the end of the year. Not everyone is interested in attending.

“Pretty sure dumb whores go to hell,” someone wrote her on Twitter last week.

“Whew!” Ms. Clifford replied. “Glad I’m a smart one.”

Becoming Stormy

Classmates remember her as a serious, unobtrusive student — a natural fit at a competitive, racially diverse high school with an engineering focus. They knew her as Stephanie Gregory, the girl with the auburn hair. She liked horses and Mötley Crüe.

A quote beneath her senior yearbook photo hinted at high aspirations: “We will all get along just fine,” it read, “as soon as you realize that I am Queen.”

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The actress in 2006 at the Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas.

Credit
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

She thought she might be a veterinarian, or maybe a writer. “At first I thought I wanted to be a journalist,” Ms. Clifford said by phone on Friday in a 12-minute interview about her background.

Her parents, Sheila and Bill Gregory, divorced when she was about 4, leaving her largely in the care of her mother. She has not seen either parent in over a decade. Ms. Clifford, who later took her first husband’s surname, came from a “really bad neighborhood,” she said. She strained to remember exactly what she was like then.

“I don’t really know because I’m such a different person now,” she said. “I wasn’t like the popular girl, and I wasn’t the jock, and I wasn’t the ditz. I don’t know. I was just sort of in the middle of the road.”

She had offers from colleges, she has said. She had the test scores. The dancing started on a lark, of sorts. She was 17 and visiting a friend at a strip club in town, when she was persuaded to perform a “guest set.”

“I remember going on stage and thinking I was going to be a lot more afraid than I was,” Ms. Clifford said. “It was a slow night. There were like three people in the club, and I made enough money on two songs to make more than I did all week answering phones at the riding stable that I worked at.”

After high school, she found a professional home at the Gold Club in Baton Rouge, ingratiating herself with management as a reliable and magnetic performer, slogging through shifts from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. to earn perhaps a few hundred dollars a night.

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Ms. Clifford in New Orleans in 2009. She courted media attention that year while considering a bid in Louisiana for the United States Senate.

Credit
Bill Haber/Associated Press

A calendar from 1999, in which Ms. Clifford straddles a Harley-Davidson as the dancer for July, still sits in the club, now called the Penthouse Club Baton Rouge.

“We knew,” said Chuck Rolling, who has long overseen operations there. “She was moving in a direction that was bigger than us. We’re in Baton Rouge. We’re not even New Orleans.”

Ms. Clifford eventually graduated to higher-profile dancing work, traveling across Texas and Louisiana to headline at strip clubs, before transitioning to pornography. She was both determined to bend the business to her will and conflicted about the long-term consequences. “I have very mixed emotions about stripping because stripping got me where I am now,” she said, at age 23, in an industry interview. “I own my own house, I own my own car, I own my own business. My credit is excellent. I have nice furniture and nice things.”

Still, the risks were clear. “I have just seen so many girls that it just ruins them,” she said then, “so many women who are 35, 40 years old and still stripping and have nothing to show for it, and that is just really sad.”

Ms. Clifford chose a more tempestuous stage name than most peers. She was not an Angel, or a Summer, or a Destiny. She was Stormy. And she was blond now.

Often, she kept to herself. Mike South, a director and columnist in the industry press, recalled encountering her in 2004, the year she was named “best new starlet” at the Adult Video News Awards, pornography’s equivalent of the Oscars. “She was sitting in the lobby, alone, and I just decided to be friendly,” said Mr. South, who invited her to a group dinner. “She looks at me and doesn’t crack a smile — expressionless — and says, ‘I am really not that friendly.’”

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Competing at an equestrian event in 2016. “She takes it very personally that she does well,” a horse trainer said.

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RNSvideomedia

Recognition came quickly anyway: awards, magazine spreads, feature roles and a contract with Wicked Pictures, a prominent pornography company. When she needed to, she charmed industry gatekeepers with a disarming wit.

“Are those real?” read a question posted on her website.

“Well,” she said, “you’re certainly not imagining them.”

In 2008, as Jenna Jameson, then the industry’s reigning monarch, announced her retirement at an awards show — “I will never spread my legs in this industry again,” she told the crowd — Ms. Clifford seemed to position herself next in line.

“I love you, Jenna,” Ms. Clifford said, accepting an award from Ms. Jameson moments later, “but I’m going to spread my legs a little longer.”

Other Horizons

It was a striking political slogan: “Screwing People Honestly.” But subtlety was never the idea.

In 2009, well into her turn as a director, Ms. Clifford sensed an opening beyond her typical orbit. David Vitter, a United States senator in her home state of Louisiana, was staggering toward a re-election year, laid low by a prostitution scandal. Ms. Clifford declared herself a Republican (though a Democratic operative was said to be involved in her efforts) and courted wide-scale media attention as she publicly weighed the merits of running. In remarks at the time, she connected her professional journey to the lives of service workers across the state.

“Just as these misguided arbiters of the mainstream view an adult entertainment star as an anathema to the political process,” she said, when she eventually decided against a bid, “so too do they view the dishwasher, the cashier or the bus driver.”

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Ms. Clifford has continued appearing at clubs since the Trump scandal broke, saying it would be foolish to turn down more money than usual for the same work.

Credit
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The false-start campaign coincided with a turbulent moment in her personal life, exposing her to scrutiny in the mainstream press. In July 2009, Ms. Clifford was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence after hitting her husband, a performer in the industry, and throwing a potted plant during a fight about laundry and unpaid bills, according to police records. The husband, Michael Mosny, was not injured, and the charge was later dropped. Ms. Clifford had previously been married to another pornographic actor.

She has since married another colleague in the business, Brendon Miller, the father of her now 7-year-old daughter. He is also a drummer and has composed music for her films. The family has been spotted often at equestrian events, where Ms. Clifford, the owner of several horses, has captured blue ribbons. Her preparations can be meticulous, matching her saddle pad with a horse’s bonnet colors.

“She takes it very personally that she does well,” said Dominic Schramm, a horse trainer and rider who has worked with her for several years. “She can be quite hard on herself.”

Ms. Clifford has not shown up at competitions since news broke in January that she accepted a financial settlement in October 2016 — weeks before the election — agreeing to keep quiet about her alleged intimate relationship with Mr. Trump. She has said the affair, which representatives of Mr. Trump have denied, began in 2006 and extended into 2007, the year she married Mr. Mosny.

Earlier this month, she escalated public attention by filing suit, calling the 2016 contract meaningless given that Mr. Trump had never signed it and revealing that the president’s personal lawyer had taken further secret legal action to keep her silent this year.

She has said that she does not want to expose the equestrian world — or her daughter — to the attendant circus trailing her now.

But the show has gone on for Ms. Clifford. She has danced across the country in recent months, from Las Vegas to Long Island. There are many more appearances to come. It would be foolish, she has said, to turn down more money than usual for the same work.

“She likes to maximize her profits,” said Danny Capozzi, an agent who manages her bookings, “not only on the feature dance bookings but at all times.”

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Plaid Cymru 'would hold Wales independence referendum'


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Media captionAdam Price says a poll on Wales’ constitutional future would be held after two terms of Plaid government

An independence referendum, national air carrier and energy grid would be created under a Plaid Cymru government, the party has said.

In a speech at the party’s conference in Llangollen, Denbighshire, Adam Price outlined what two terms of a Plaid government would hope to achieve.

Mr Price made several proposals for a “vibrant, confident, successful nation” to be achieved by 2030.

He also called Wales “a wealthy country whose people live in poverty”.

Mr Price, AM for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, said the party will “tackle the myth” Wales is a poor nation by claiming, in terms of per capita income, it is richer than “every nation in Asia bar two, every nation in the Americas bar two, and richer than more than half of Europe”.

Under the pledge, if elected, Plaid Cymru would establish a Wales national carrier with direct connections to the Americas and mainland Europe, create a national energy grid, set up a national housing company and provide free university education for Welsh students.

A referendum on Wales’ constitutional future would be held at the end of the second term of a Plaid government, which Mr Price said would “ask this coming generation where they want Wales to be mid-century and will include independence as a realistic option”, he said.

“Are you ready to add your voice to that greatest of all causes?” Mr Price asked party members, as he rounded off the closing speech of the conference.

“To liberate this nation from poverty, from sickness, from ignorance and timidity.

“Are you with us? Then let the work begin.”

Speaking at the spring conference on Friday, party leader Leanne Wood said Plaid Cymru members needed to stand “shoulder to shoulder” in order to dislodge Labour.

She said hers was the only party that could offer an alternative Welsh government, following a call from two Plaid MPs to reposition the party in the centre and to be open to working with the Tories.

Speaking to BBC Wales on Saturday, Ms Wood said: “The centre in Wales is Welsh Labour and that place is filled, you could argue.”

Making Magic Out of Thin Air


What’s more, Ms. Gelsone said, “I have to find out how many people are going to be in the audience, because I have to know how hot the house is going to be.”

Why? Because the heat from a large crowd is like a magnet for floating material, particularly the balloons, which risk “totally getting sucked off the stage.” “So now,” she said, “in all those hot houses, Seth and I actually pull the act back three feet.”

Precision, Precision, Precision

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Mr. Bloom fills balloons with the precise amount of helium so they will not float away moments before the start of the show.

Credit
William DeShazer for The New York Times

One section of “Air Play” has Mr. Bloom and Ms. Gelsone “juggle” balloons that hover at eye level atop strings as if they were human dance partners — a seemingly simple trick that has taken painstaking trial and error to pull off. Not only do the weight of the strings and the texture of the balloons have to be standard; Mr. Bloom also has a preshow ritual of filling the balloons with precisely uniform amounts of helium.

To accomplish this feat, the show’s longtime technical director, Todd Little, said that Mr. Bloom uses a limited-edition device called “the Inflatinator,” whose air flow can be calibrated “down to the hundredths of a second.”

Stop the Pop

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What keeps the oversized balloons from popping? The duo isn’t telling.

Credit
William DeShazer for The New York Times

The physics of air flow isn’t the only practical science the “Air Play” duo have picked up on the job. They’ve also learned to “de-staticize” their playing area, because static electricity can lead balloons to pop, which isn’t just a prop-killer; one loud pop in close proximity meant that Mr. Bloom lost hearing in his left ear for a little bit.

Even the two large latex balloons the duo climb into at one point benefit from special treatment, though this is something of a trade secret, Ms. Gelsone said: “You don’t even want to know what we do to the big balloons to keep them consistent.”

Have Good Help

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From left, the stagehands Kurt Fortmeyer, Robbie Pickle and Randy Davidson clean up after the final scene of “Air Play.”

Credit
William DeShazer for The New York Times

In the years since Acrobuffos began building it, “Air Play” has racked up close to 150 performances, from China to Chile to the Netherlands, and they’ve had the same technical director, Mr. Little, and stage manager, Flora Vassar.

Ms. Vassar has learned to adapt the show’s lighting and sound cues to a dizzying variety of international venues, and Mr. Little has occasionally been called on as a sort of silent stage partner: In one show, when an electric fan died, he rushed backstage with a leaf blower to correct the flow of the balloons.

Get Philosophical

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Working with packing peanuts has added another dimension to the show.

Credit
William DeShazer for The New York Times

The show’s development, which included a 2014 workshop at the New Victory as part of the company’s LabWorks program, has led Acrobuffos away from their manic street-performing style toward a more narrative piece that Ms. Gelsone described as “a philosophical expedition into what air is.”

And it isn’t just about bodies in space but about time. “It’s hard to slow people down enough in the street to enjoy a moment of poetry,” Mr. Bloom said.

The show has tried to capture some of the feeling of viewing Mr. Wurtzel’s air sculptures in a museum. “Initially we were worried, ‘Is this piece too long?’” Mr. Bloom said. “The answer has been no. We can see it when the audience slows down and gets into our rhythm. We can’t do that outdoors.”

Of course, that’s not the only thing that keeps “Air Play” indoors, he added: “We can’t do this outdoors because it would blow all over the place.”

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Wales A&E performance worst on record


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Media captionVanessa Young of the NHS Confederation in Wales said it had been a difficult period for staff

The proportion of patients spending less than the four hours target time in hospital A&E departments in Wales is the lowest since records began.

The percentage waiting more than 12 hours in A&E is also the highest, according to the health figures for February published Thursday.

The 38,323 emergency calls to the ambulance service were also the second highest on record.

But response times to “red” calls remained within the 65% target at 69%.

The worsening performance figures in Wales is also reflected in other parts of the UK too.

It is a sign also of the pressure NHS Wales has been under this winter, with increasing demand, including the worst flu season for several years.

But these figures do not cover the very cold snap in early March.

They show:

  • 75.9% of patients spent less than four hours in all emergency care facilities from arrival until admission, transfer or discharge, the lowest on record. This is 2.1% lower than the previous month and 5% lower than the same month in 2017. The target is 95%.
  • 5,087 patients spent 12 hours or more in A&E, which is 21 patients fewer than in January – the record. But the proportion is the highest on record. The target is that no patients should wait this long.
  • 85.3% of patients newly diagnosed with cancer via the urgent suspected route started treatment within the 62-day target time. The target is 95%.

Overall, there were another 3,258 patients using A&E in Wales last month compared to February 2017.

It was the busiest February on record for the University Hospital of Wales (UHW), the country’s biggest hospital, with nearly 10,500 patients attending its A&E department. It was the second busiest February for Morriston in Swansea.

Both hospitals saw rises in their 12-hour waits over the month.

Dr Graham Shortland, medical director at UHW said bad weather and flu had compounded the pressures.

“We want to free up ambulances as quickly and as appropriately as possible and I’d apologise to any members of the public who’ve been kept waiting in ambulances too long outside our hospitals,” he said.

“But I can reassure them, we at all times will clinically prioritise the needs of patients to come into the department to get the healthcare they require.”

Wrexham Maelor had the most patients waiting more than 12 hours, 738. And for the four-hour waiting times, it was also the worst performing with only 54.7% of patients seen within the target.

Gary Doherty, chief executive of the Betsi Cadwaladr health board said he wanted to apologise and said it “wasn’t the level of service we wanted to give or one we’re proud of”.

But he said there had been bigger challenges than in the rest of Wales, especially with flu cases.

Of the major hospitals, Prince Charles in Merthyr Tydfil saw 80.1% of patients within the four-hour target time and was the best performing.

Health Secretary Vaughan Gething said the vast majority of patients had received “timely, professional care” but the figures confirmed it had proved “the busiest winter on record”.

He said none of the challenges were unique to Wales but the Welsh Government had provided an additional £10m in February to local authorities to enable people to remain in their homes or return from hospital to their community more quickly.

NHS Confederation Wales director Vanessa Young said: “We’ve had excellent plans in place, probably the best ever but there’s a particular set of circumstances this winter – the highest rate of flu since 2010/11, we’ve had sustained cold temperatures and we’re seeing more people over 75 being admitted to hospital and often they have to stay longer.”

Conservative health spokeswoman Angela Burns called on Mr Gething to “get to grips with a mounting crisis on his watch”.

She added: “It’s yet another sign of a health service under significant pressure, undermined by poor planning and underfunding by the Welsh Labour Government.”

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