Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fly under the bridge, Baby

Dartmouth economist and former adviser to POTUS, Andrew Samwick, awards Voxies to journalists who write 'exceptionally lucid and thoughtful contributions to the public discussion'.

The Fly Under the Bridge Academy hereby inaugurates the Milton--in honor of the man Paul Krugman recently described as, 'possibly the most brilliant communicator of economic ideas to the general public that ever lived'--to be awarded to journalists who exhibit even minimal understanding of some simple principle of economics.

The winner, in the category, Knock Me Over With a Slice With Three Toppings, is Seattle Times reporter Robert L Jamieson Jr for this column:

Seattle's famous Pagliacci Pizza chain is getting dinged on local blogs because of a delivery policy that critics believe avoids certain areas based on class. The nicer the address, the thinking goes, the greater the likelihood of getting a piping hot pepperoni.

....Fast-food companies in cities across the country have found themselves in the cross hairs of controversy for not delivering to certain addresses. Their reasons range from valid crime concerns to, yes, even out-and-out bias.

I had a hunch Pagliacci wasn't getting a fair shake. A call to Pagliacci headquarters in Seattle brought me in touch with a nice guy named Sam. I told him that Domino's delivers to more areas of West Seattle.

"Domino's for quality of food is way lower on the scale," said Sam, who then was quick to get his boss on the horn.

Long story short, it's true: Pagliacci, which has a kitchen that is mostly for takeout and delivery on West Seattle's California Avenue, doesn't deliver to certain parts of the neighborhood.

But the company says its reasons have nothing to do with class and everything to do with time.
Call it the seven-minute rule.

The company aims to deliver to areas it can reach with ease in about seven minutes from any of its 15 delivery centers throughout greater Seattle.

To do this well, Pagliacci must set boundaries.

....For Pagliacci, it all comes down to "maintaining food freshness."

From a business perspective, I see where the company, with 600 employees, is coming from. If Pagliacci officials rapidly expanded their boundary-delivery areas, they'd risk ruining a successful business model. Drivers would have to go farther out. Deliveries would take longer. Food would be less appetizing when it arrived. The brand could take a bite.

....Econ 101 explains this phenomenon: the point of diminishing marginal returns.

This occurs when a company gets a smaller slice of the pie for all its efforts.

Pagliacci isn't out to dis anyone. The pizza company just discriminates when it comes to delivering a cold and soggy pie to your doorstep.

No one wants a bum pie -- or rap.

Mr. Jamieson's Milton is awarded even though he misstates, slightly, the principle in question--The Law of Diminishing Returns is less the explanation than that a business will try to maximize its revenue up to the point that the marginal benefit from selling one more pizza is exceeded by the marginal cost of so doing. But, in the world of journalism, we take what we can get.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Even a Comrade needs to make a living

Privatizing Das Kapital in Vietnam:

Vietnam's leaders have decided to remove dozens of companies from the control of the armed forces and the ruling Communist Party.

The companies will instead be transferred to civilian ownership.

....Many state and party organisations have made large amounts of money by going into business.

Vietnam's armed forces own a mobile phone company, a bank, shipbuilders, textile factories and even hotels - in total more than 100 firms.

....But now the ruling Communist Party has decided the military should concentrate on defending the country and only keep hold of companies with genuine security functions.

The party and party-controlled organisations will also lose control of their businesses.

Less is more

In 21st century Poland:

Renowned lace makers in the Polish village of Koniakow have found a new way of boosting sales - sexy underwear.

Artisans who used to create gowns and altar cloths for customers such as the late Pope now craft G-strings and other lingerie for sale all over the world.

They say the underwear is quicker to make and easier to sell than traditional goods such as tablecloths.

But not everyone in the deeply Catholic village is happy with the changes to the 200-year old industry.

...."The priest told me that a woman came to confession and asked him if it was a sin to make G-strings," said Anna Barska, a 47-year-old lace maker.

But now many people have embraced the new business opportunity.

"Traditional lace craft was too expensive, so it wasn't selling anymore. We weren't making a living," said Malgorzata Sanaszek.

So when her experiment with G-strings proved to be a big hit, she set up a internet underwear sales company which now employs about 60 lace makers.

Buyers can choose bras, camisoles and other lingerie in dozens of delicate designs and colours. There is even a lacy thong on offer for men.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Going Dutch

Even in high density Holland the automobile is preferred to trains:

AMSTERDAM — Additional funding will not solve the problem of traffic jams, Carl Koopmans of the Institute on Transport Policies (Kennisinstituut voor Mobiliteitsbeleid, KiM) told De Pers Monday.

"It has been proven that expanding public transportation won't attract more private car owners", Koopmans said. Attempting to solve the traffic jams problem, it is therefore inefficient to pour more funding into, for example, the Dutch railroad company Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), he added.

....On the one hand, cars are using less and less fuel, on the other hand, trains continue to consume a lot of electricity, Koopmans said.

Koopmans, who also lectures on infrastructure and transport at the University of Amsterdam, predicts that public transport will play a marginal role in the country's future.

More people drive today, while train use has remained the same since the 1990s, he explained.
In Koopmans' words, the train is a "niche product". The fundamental disadvantage of public transport is that you still have to get to and from it, he said.

The Pigou Club could not be reached for comment.

A Celebration to Last Throughout the Years

Today is Milton Friedman Day--the most important intellectual of the 20th century:

Stanford, California – January 23, 2007 – Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Gavin Newsome yesterday announced that they were declaring Monday, January 29th, to be Milton Friedman Day in the State of California and in the City of San Francisco. In making these proclamations, the Governor and Mayor join the City Council of Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley, The University of Chicago, The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, The Economist, Free to Choose Media, and more than two dozen partner organizations in declaring the 29th as a day of remembrance honoring the Nobel-Prize-winning economist.

And everyone is invited to the party going on right here:

The contest, sponsored by and the Idea Channel, is open to anyone who is interested in producing a video in the spirit of Dr. Friedman, whose passion in life was challenging the status quo. Cash prizes will be offered to the first, second and third place winners. For more information....

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Girl Can't Help It...Again

No wonder they think Jerry Lewis is a comic genius:

PARIS, Jan 26, 2007 (AFP) - France's Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal, already in hot water over a string of diplomatic gaffes, faced more embarrassment Friday over claims she was fooled by a comedian posing as prime minister of Quebec.

Gerald Dahan -- who is seen as close to Royal's right-wing rival Nicolas Sarkozy -- told French radio he called her on Wednesday claiming to be Quebec Premier Jean Charest, to discuss a row over comments in which she appeared to back independence for the French-speaking Canadian province.

...."Dahan's a funny guy. Jokes happen. We should treat these things with a pinch of salt, a touch of humour," said Jack Lang, Royal's special adviser, appearing to confirm the set-up.

The comedian, who specialises in duping public figures, played a brief extract of the conversation on air, in which he jokingly compares Royal's comments on Quebec to suggesting independence for Corsica, the restive French Mediterranean island.

"The French people wouldn't be opposed to the idea, by the way," a woman's voice is heard to reply with a laugh -- before adding: "Don't repeat that, though -- it would cause another incident in France. It's a secret."

Thursday, January 25, 2007

All we are saying...

Is, give Paz a chance, Scooter. It's easy, she has a website

Check out some of the clips from her 2005 movie Spanglish. Or view the montage.

You'll see she's got everything Penelope has, and more.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Dos Equis for beer

The great Counterfeit Condom Caper is busted:

A health warning has been issued after fake condoms were found in a shop.

Packets of "Durexx Gossamer" were seized by trading standards from a shop in Walsall, near Birmingham.

The fakes are copies of a variety of condoms made by the well-known brand Durex.

Shoppers are being warned not to be misled by the extra "x" on the packet as the counterfeits have not passed British safety regulations.

John Beavon, Walsall Council trading standards manager, said: "This is potentially very serious. A brief glance at this packet and people may well be taken in but they are counterfeit.

"A simple check is for people to look for an extra 'x' on the packet. If it says 'Durexx', it's not an innocent misprint - they are fake."

Priorities, Priorities

This does explain a lot:

PARIS, Jan 24, 2007 (AFP) - French state support to businesses in 2005 amounted to 65 billion euros (85 billion dollars), nearly twice as much as the defence budget and than spending on education, a press report said on Wednesday.

A government study cited by Le Figaro newspaper said that public funding for businesses represented 4.0 percent of gross domectic product in 2005.

State aid to enterprises reperesents "a little more than total for national education, nearly two times the defense budget and about the same order of magnitude as hospital spending", said the report, drafted by the inspectors from the ministries of finance, social affairs and from the administration.

Sizing them up

Though la Madrilena above looks pretty healthy to us, it's good to know that the Spanish clothing industry wants to produce products people could actually use:

MADRID — The government and fashion industry are to unite to find what size Spanish women really are in a bid to combat obsessive dieting by teenagers.

They are to measure 8,500 women between 12 and 70 years old throughout Spain over 12 months.

The results will be used to make clothes to fit real Spanish women and to end the confusion over clothes sizes.

Mannequins in shops will then be made to no less than a size 38 and the upper size 46 is not to be considered anything special.

It is also intended to try to end the obsessive slimming by teenage and young women desperate to fit into dresses which are lower than size 38.

But their hearts don't seem to be really in it:

Because of a lack of any industry norm, a size 38 may be completely different from one shop to another.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Impeachment, Spanish Style

The citizens of Fago couldn't wait for the next election:

Miguel Grima was not a well-liked man. As mayor of a tiny hamlet in the foothills of the Pyrenees in northern Spain he had ruffled a few feathers.

....So last Friday evening when he failed to return home from a late council meeting in a nearby town, his wife took his absence seriously and contacted police.

The next day the battered body of Mr Grima was discovered in a roadside ditch. He had been shot at least four times in the head and chest at point-blank range.

....the Guardia Civil have indicated that they strongly believe those responsible for the murder of the 50-year-old mayor bore a grudge over his policies in the village.

There is no shortage of contenders. During his 12 years in office, the mayor, a member of the conservative Popular Party and the owner of the village's only guest house, had been involved in almost four dozen individual court cases with homeowners in Fago.

He had taken out injunctions to prevent people making home improvements and closed down a bed and breakfast because it competed for business with his own establishment.

Mr Grima had even incurred the wrath of the parents of the only two children living in the village by banning basketballs and shooting hoops in the village's only flat area - the central plaza.

The most public battle in recent times came about after the mayor imposed taxes of almost 400 euros a month on outdoor tables at Fago's only drinking establishment – the Casa Moriega bar – an amount locals consider high for an isolated village which attracts only a modest number of visitors in summer.

....Santiago Miramar, the only villager who would comment on this week's events, said there were few in Fago who didn't consider themselves an enemy of the mayor.

"He was an unpleasant man who ran this place like his personal kingdom. He made life difficult for most of us but for a select few he made life impossible," he said.

Another villager, who refused to be named because he had been told by a judge that no one was to speak publicly while they were under suspicion, said: "Revenge is a dish best served cold. I'm not saying anything more than that."

The Girl Can't Help It

The French have words for it, gaffe and penchant:

PARIS, Jan 23, 2007 (AFP) - France's Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal was accused of making a new diplomatic gaffe Tuesday after she was rebuked by Canada's prime minister for reportedly supporting "freedom" for Quebec.

In remarks that made headline news across Canada, Royal was quoted as saying after a meeting with Andre Boisclair, head of the pro-independence Parti Quebecois, that France and Quebec share common values, including "sovereignty and Quebec's freedom."

It prompted a sharp retort from Prime Minister Stephen Harper who said that "experience teaches that it is highly inappropriate for a foreign leader to interfere in the democratic affairs of another country."

Stephane Dion, of Canada's Liberal Party opposition, also rejected the remarks. "We do not interfere in the affairs of a friendly country. We do not wish for the dismantling of a friendly country," he said.

Quebec has twice held referendums on secession from Canada -- in 1980 and 1995 -- and on each occasion a majority has been opposed. Boisclair's party is committed to a new referendum if it takes power in Quebec in 2008.

....It was not the first time Royal, 53, has come under fire for what her opponents say are diplomatic gaffes.
On a visit to the Middle East she was accused of condoning remarks by the Lebanese Hezbollah leader in which he compared Israel to Nazi Germany, and in Beijing she made controversial comments in praise of the Chinese system of justice.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Drive-by Ogling

Sexpresso in Seattle:

To stand apart from the hordes of drive-through espresso stands that clutter the Northwest's roadsides, commuter coffee stops such as Tukwila's Cowgirls Espresso are adding bodacious baristas, flirty service and ever more-revealing outfits to the menu.

At Port Orchard's Natté Latté, baristas sport hot-pink hot pants and tight white tank tops. Day-of-the-week theme outfits ranging from racy lingerie to "fetish" ensembles are the dress code at Moka Girls Espresso in Auburn and at several Cowgirls Espresso stands in the area. Bikini tops are the special at Café Lorraine on Highway 9 in Woodinville, and the women of The Sweet Spot in Shoreline pose provocatively in Playmate-style profiles on the stand's Web site.

"In this area, we all know how to make good coffee," said Barbara Record, who opened Bikini Espresso in Renton last month. The trick is to set your business apart, she said, and sex is one sure-fire way to do that.

"It's just, how far do you want to go?" she said.

Felicia of The Sweet Spot is willing to go this far.

Hot enough for you...

to create electricity. But you have to dig:

The extraordinary amount of heat seething below Earth's hard rocky crust could help supply the United States with a significant fraction of the electricity it will need in the future, probably at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact, scientists now claim.

An 18-member panel led by MIT has prepared the first study in some 30 years to take a new look at the largely ignored area of geothermal energy.

Geothermal plants essentially mine heat by using wells at times a mile or more deep. These wells tap into hot rock and connect them with flowing water, producing large amounts of steam and super-hot water that can drive turbines and run electricity generators at the surface.

....The United States is the world's biggest producer of geothermal energy. Nafi Toksöz, a geophysicist at MIT, noted that the electricity produced annually by geothermal plants now in use in California, Hawaii, Utah and Nevada is comparable to that produced by solar and wind power combined.

However, existing U.S. plants are concentrated mostly at isolated regions in the West. There, hot rocks are closer to the surface, requiring less drilling and thus lowering costs. Even then, drilling must reach depths of 5,000 feet or more in the West, and much deeper in the eastern United States.

Scent of a Woman Scorned

East is east. West is Big Brother House, and the twain has met at the perfume factory in India:

A plant in India which makes perfume bottles endorsed by British television star Jade Goody has stopped production following the Big Brother racism row.

The news came after Goody's perfume was withdrawn from at least one UK chain last week following the row.

Goody visited the factory in western Gujarat state when her perfume, Shh, was launched last year, officials said.

She was accused of leading alleged racist bullying of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty on the reality TV show.

Goody was evicted from the Big Brother house on Friday after her on-screen rows with Shetty.

....Stephen Noronha, vice-president of Pragati Glass where the perfume bottles are made,....said Goody had seemed polite and curious when she toured the plant last year

She even said 'India is a beautiful country'. Maybe they all say it."

Friday, January 19, 2007

Got a soft touch?

Spain. Strawberries:

MADRID — Spanish strawberry growers were forced to travel to Morocco to find pickers to gather this year's harvest.

....Working in collaboration with the Moroccan employment agency, Spanish businesses are to recruit over 2,600 women to work in Spain during the strawberry season.

Strawberry farmers say they prefer women because they "are better organized and more reliable," and "because picking strawberries requires a degree of sensitivity".


Funny money...NOT:

Reversing itself, the Defense Department says an espionage report it produced that warned about Canadian coins with tiny radio-frequency transmitters was not true.

The Defense Security Service said it never could substantiate its own published claims about the mysterious coins. ....

The service had contended since late June that such coins were found planted on U.S. contractors with classified security clearances on at least three separate occasions between October 2005 and January 2006 as the contractors traveled through Canada.

....Experts said such tiny transmitters almost certainly would have limited range to communicate with sensors no more than a few feet away, such as ones hidden inside a doorway. The metal coins also would interfere with any signals emitted, they said.

Experts also warned that hiding tracking technology inside coins would be fraught with risks because the spy's target might inadvertently give away the coin or spend it.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The More the Merrier...

...for the competitor, says George Will:

The average jetliner is struck by lightning twice a year. Boeing's competitor in the commercial aircraft duopoly, Airbus, has recently struck itself twice. The government-created European consortium decided to build the wrong aircraft, then built it badly.

....Created in 1970, Airbus prospered. From 2001 to 2005, its annual orders exceeded Boeing's, and it will deliver more planes than Boeing this year. But now Airbus has problems inherent in its role as Europe's iconic public-private collaboration. Such collaboration, called "industrial policy,'' involves the irrationalities of economic nationalism as each of the nine countries involved in subsidizing the A380 fights for "its'' jobs.

....The A380 has received $3.8 billion in cheap loans and other ongoing government subsidies misleadingly called "launch aid.'' This amounts to seminationalization, giving the governments involved an incentive to regard one another as rivals. Boeing wants the World Trade Organization to compel European governments to stop their subsidies. [Boeing CEO James] McNerney, however, acknowledges that some people think Boeing should allow Airbus to break WTO rules -- and continue to be plagued by political decisions trumping economic rationality. Airbus is illustrating what happens when governments treat commercial enterprises as jobs programs and instruments of national glory.

Beau Jest

Segolene says it's no laughing matter:

PARIS, Jan 18, 2007 (AFP) - Segolene Royal, the Socialist frontrunner for France's April presidential election, Thursday suspended one of her spokesman after he slighted her partner with a joke.

Arnaud Montebourg "is suspended from his functions, he will not be speaking in my name for a month," Royal told AFP.

Montebourg, responding to a presenter on a light-hearted television show Wednesday who asked what Royal's weaknesses were, said: "Segolene Royal has only one weak point -- her companion."

Royal and Francois Hollande, the leader of the Socialist Party, have been a couple for more than 25 years and have four children together.

The Socialist candidate was forced into a tight corner earlier this week after Hollande called for tax increases for people earning more than 4,000 euros (5,165 dollars) is she is elected.

His proposal was not coordinated with Royal's campaign headquarters and prompted a quick rebuttal from the candidate herself, who is anxious not to alienate France's middle classes.

Although Montebourg quickly told the TV presenter he was "having a laugh" with his answer, on Thursday he was forced to offer his resignation over a comment he said he been "unfortunately badly interpreted."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

We're No Hell's Angels

We're cut from entirely different leather in Holland:

AMSTERDAM — The Hells Angels from the Northcoast chapter denied in Leeuwarden Court on Tuesday they formed a criminal organisation.

"They don't approve of criminal behaviour, they emphatically reject it," the Hells Angels defence lawyer said, adding that the chapter could not be banned or disbanded.

The wholesale attempt by the public prosecution office (OM) to have the motorcycle club Hells Angels banned in the Netherlands started in the Leeuwarden Court on Tuesday. The prosecution claims the club does not belong in society because its members are regularly involved in criminal activities.

According to the prosecution, the court case to have the Hells Angels banned is a unique. No other case has been put to court across the globe.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Take our airlines....Please

Europe's pet industries are finally going to have to straighten up and fly right:

For years, European Union regulators have been trying to persuade governments across Europe to wean their unprofitable state-owned companies from the subsidies that keep them alive.

This month, Rome is finally doing just that, cutting the cord of Alitalia SpA after years of keeping the albatross of European airlines alive. The Italian government has set Jan. 29 as the deadline to find private investors to take money-losing Alitalia off its hands.

Rome isn't the only government to run afoul of Brussels for keeping big employers on life support. Greece confronts a similar quandary as it tries to salvage debt-laden state carrier Olympic Airlines. Brussels insists that Olympic hand back hundreds of millions of euros in state subsidies, hampering the Greek government's plans to privatize the airline.

In France, a multibillion-euro package in 2003 to rescue conglomerate Alstom SA from bankruptcy and save 26,000 jobs went through only after nine months of wrangling with Brussels. Soon afterward the EU issued rules to further restrict state-sponsored bailouts.

Brussels also is fighting Germany in court in an effort to repeal a law that protects car maker Volkswagen AG from a takeover and possible job cuts. The Italian government, however, has bowed to EU pressure and concluded that selling Alitalia is the only way to save the airline from political meddling that has weighed it down in the past.

But, it ain't going to be easy:

Alitalia is a tough sell. Whoever takes over the company will have to negotiate with no fewer than 10 unions, whose strength and tight relations with political parties in the government have frequently given them the upper hand over management. ....

Rome has insulated the carrier from competition and allowed layers of expensive privileges to accumulate. Alitalia female flight attendants have the right to two days of paid "menstrual leave" a month, according to the company. Alitalia's Boeing 767s are among the only planes in the industry that still have space carved out for a bed for tired crew members. The airline last year tried to remove the beds to make more room for passenger seats, but abandoned the plan because of union resistance. Unions went on strike for a total of 176 hours last year, bringing the airline to its knees during some of the busiest travel periods.

Alitalia also operates an aging and inefficient fleet -- often flying planes that burn more fuel and carry fewer passengers than newer models -- making it difficult to make money even when planes are full.

Monday, January 15, 2007

au revoir

And, guten tag, says Airbus:

European aircraft maker Airbus plans to end production at a French factory for its A320 single-aisled jet and move operations to Germany, French newspapers reported Monday.

"There will be only one assembly line for single aisles," Airbus chief executive Louis Gallois told trade union representatives, La Tribune daily paper said.

Manufacturing will take place uniquely in Hamburg, one of two existing sites, at the expense of a factory at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, southern France, La Tribune and rival daily Le Figaro reported.

Airbus is to unveil a vast restructuring plan next month called Power 8, which is expected to include a simplification of the group's manufacturing processes.
And stop the Great Depression, with negative interest rates:

Can nominal interest rates be less than zero? Many people would argue not, reasoning that no one would invest $100 today with a promise of receiving only, say,$99 in one year, given the alternative of simply holding the $100 in cash. Yet, rates on short-term Japanese government bills [in 1998] were negative, and several foreign-owned banks in Japan have paid negative nominal interest rates on yen deposits.

Is there a paradox? Not really. The claim that the nominal interest rate cannot be negative assumes that holding currency is costless. In the real world, however,holding cash is risky and costly. Like any valuable, cash can be lost, stolen or destroyed. Just as people pay depositories a fee for safekeeping other valuables, individuals are willing to pay a fee on deposits rather than bear the risk associated with holding cash.

In addition, there are costs associated with moving and storing cash. While these costs are trivial for a small amount of currency, they are not for large amounts.

Consequently, individuals may prefer to maintain deposits at banks or hold Treasury bills rather than transport and store cash, even when these assets have negative rates of return. In effect, the negative nominal return represents a fee that individuals pay to hold deposits or Treasury bills rather than bear the risks and costs of holding cash.

....In addition, deposits offer advantages over holding cash or other investments. For example, checks or electronic transfers from deposit accounts are more convenient and less costly, especially for large payments or payments to distant points. Furthermore, banks often bundle services, so deposit holders may gain access to certain bank services or to better prices on those services than non depositors.

Friday, January 12, 2007

They're hiring in Abu Dhabi

It may be a Maynard G Krebs moment for the French; Work...Work!?!!

France's next government will have to persuade workers to stay at work much longer if the country's generous pension system is to survive into the 21st century, a top advisory body warned on Thursday.

....Employment rates among France's 55-64 year-olds stand at 37.8 percent, among the lowest in the European Union, where the average is 42.5 percent, due to a relatively low legal age of retirement, at 60, and high unemployment.

....This year the pensions deficit is expected to reach 3.5 billion euros (4.5 billion dollars), compared to 2.4 billion last year, as the system is stretched by an ageing workforce and unemployment of 8.7 percent.

By 2050, the system will need an injection of between two and five percent of gross domestic product (GDP), or between 30 and 80 billion euros, as the active population falls relative to the inactive population, it predicted.

From 2008, the report warned it would be a "strategic" imperative to improve French employment rates among senior workers, as well as tackling unfair privileges on a case-by-case basis.

Though the age of retirement in the private sector is 60, those in the public sector leave far earlier, from age 45 in the armed forces and civil service, and from age 50 in the state-owned rail and energy sectors.

Amas de Casas Desesperadas

Archer Daniels Midlands strikes the poor of Mexico:

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon has pledged to intervene to tackle the soaring price of tortillas, the flat corn bread which is a local staple.

The price of tortillas, the main source of calories for many of Mexico's poor, rose by more than 10% last year.

Mr Calderon said the government would clamp down on speculators and search for cheaper providers of corn.

But he ruled out imposing subsidies or price controls, which were lifted in the late 1990s.

....Earlier this week, angry housewives heckled Mr Calderon at his public appearances, pleading with him to bring tortilla prices down.

"When there isn't enough money to buy meat, you do without," one woman in Mexico City, Bonifacia Ysidro, told the Associated press. "Tortillas you can't do without."

....Under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico used to get cheap corn imports from the US, but Mexico's Economy Minister Eduardo Sojo said that with more US corn being diverted into ethanol production, supply was dwindling.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

It's All Greek to Us

The French have their Gallic noses out of joint yet again:

PARIS, Jan 8, 2007 (AFP) - The head of the Paris Louvre was forced on Monday to fight off accusations that France's most prestigious museum is "selling its soul" by agreeing to loan out its prized collections overseas.

At the core of the row is a project to create a satellite of the Louvre in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi....

For some in France, alarmed to see their treasured heritage leaving the country following a string of overseas tie-ups by major French museums, the glitzy Abu Dhabi project was the last straw.

Under the title, "Museums are not for sale", three art world heavyweights including Francoise Cachin, head of France's national museum council, set the ball rolling with a fiery article in Le Monde newspaper last month.

..."Works belonging to our heritage are not consumer goods," the article read, dismissing the Abu Dhabi project as a gimmick for rich property developers that would deprive the Louvre's 7.3 million annual visitors in Paris.

The article also slammed the decision to loan out works, including by the 17th-century French painter Nicolas Poussin and the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, as part of a three-year partnership between the Louvre and the US city of Atlanta -- "the rich city of Coca-Cola".

Imagine! Nike of Samothrace and DaVinci's Mona Lisa outside France!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Midriff Crisis

Gee, no kidding?

An hourglass figure is more than just a fancy of fashion. Scientists believe the waspish waist has "universal and timeless appeal" that crosses a variety of generations and cultures.

....The research is based on analysis of almost 350,000 works of fiction from Britain and the U.S.

....They then repeated the experiment with ancient Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana between the 1st and 3rd century and Chinese dynastic Palace poetry between the 4th and 6th century.

They found breasts received the most mentions, cropping up 219 times. However, on only 16 occasions was the shape or size referred to as well.

There were however 66 references to waists - with every single one specifying a slim waist.

This was important because it showed waists were considered attractive, regardless of culture and before the influence of mass media.

Which is bad news for all those Bridget Jones diarists in the UK:

The findings, however, do not bode well for the average British woman whose shape is leaning more towards apple than hourglass.

Her waist size has ballooned by four inches in the past 20 years to around 34in.

la dolce-amaro vita

The good news is that you're married to Sophia Loren, but Italy disapproves and confiscates your art collection:

ROME (AP) -- Italian producer Carlo Ponti, who discovered a teenage Sophia Loren, launched her film career and later married her despite threats of bigamy charges and excommunication, has died in Geneva. He was 94.

....''I have done everything for love of Sophia,'' he said in a newspaper interview shortly before his 90th birthday in 2002. ''I have always believed in her.''

Except for a couple of times that is:

Ponti discovered many of the great Italian leading ladies, including Gina Lollobrigida, and had affairs with several. ''I don't like actors. I prefer women,'' he said at the time.

Along the way things, at times, got sticky:

He was briefly imprisoned in by the Fascist government in Italy during World War II for producing ''Piccolo Mondo Antico,'' which was considered anti-German. An Italian court later gave Ponti a six-month suspended sentence for his 1973 film ''Massacre in Rome,'' which claimed Pope Pius XII did nothing about the execution of Italian hostages by the Germans. The charges eventually were dropped on appeal.

....In 1979, a court in Rome convicted him in absentia of the illegal transfer of capital abroad and sentenced him to four years in prison and a $24 million fine.

Loren, along with film stars Ava Gardner and Richard Harris, were acquitted of conspiracy.

It took Ponti until the late 1980s to settle his legal problems and finally obtain the return of his art collection, which had been seized by authorities and given to Italian museums.

He also survived two kidnapping attempts in 1975.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Report greatly exaggerated

In Austria:

Vienna - An Austrian woman who discharged herself from hospital got a rude awakening as to why her family did not visit her over Christmas - she found them busy arranging her funeral.

....The 64-year-old woman had been admitted with stomach pains to a hospital in Mistelbach in lower Austria.

Her 39-year-old son Leopold Eissler said he had gone to visit his mother shortly before Christmas only to be told she was dead and had then spent the festive period organising her funeral.

Eissler said: "I'm not sure whether to be delighted because my mother is alive or furious that they could have made such a mistake at the hospital.

"At least it explains why they could not find the body when we wanted to pay our last respects.


If not the root of all evil, the French are looking down their noses at the replacement for the Franc:

A majority of French people believe the switch to the euro five years ago was bad for their country, according to a recent poll, which suggests the French blame the common European currency for damaging economic growth and causing price hikes.

The TNS-Sofres survey published on Wednesday (27 December) by Le Pelerin magazine showed 52 percent of respondents said giving up the franc for the euro has been "quite bad" or "very bad" for France, up from 45 percent three years ago in a similar survey.

Fifty-one percent of the 1000 participants in the telephone poll said the single currency has been mainly harmful for economic prospects while 94 percent were convinced the euro has fuelled inflation.

.... Altogether, the special survey found the lowest rate of approval for the euro since its introduction.

"While in 2002, 59% of the respondents in the eurozone thought that the new currency was overall advantageous for their country, currently only less than half of respondents hold such a favourable opinion," it concluded.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Rue Britannia

Because it no longer rules the waves, and will be hard pressed to defend its shores:

Royal Navy commanders were in uproar yesterday after it was revealed that almost half of the Fleet's 44 warships are to be mothballed as part of a Ministry of Defence cost-cutting measure.

Senior officers have said the plans will turn Britain's once-proud Navy into nothing more than a coastal defence force.

....MoD sources have admitted it is possible that the Royal Navy will discontinue one of its major commitments around the world at a time when Sir Jonathon Band, the First Sea Lord, has said more ships are needed to protect the high seas against terrorism and piracy.

And, Horatio Nelson must be rolling in his grave:

Meanwhile the French navy, which will be far superior to the Royal Navy after the cuts, will announce before the April presidential elections that a new carrier will be built.

Eurocare Espanol

Say again:

MADRID — A 67-year-old woman lost 80 percent of her hearing after waiting nine years for treatment for an ear problem, it was reported on Monday.

The woman, from Madrid, was told in 1991 she should have an operation to stop the problem caused by a perforated eardrum.

But she had to wait until 2000 for the operation, by which time she had lost 80 percent of her hearing, El Pais newspaper reported

The woman, named only as J. V. is one of five people who have been paid a total of EUR 1.2 million in compensation by Madrid health authorities for failure in care.

In the case of this woman who lost her hearing, she was paid only EUR 18,000.

In another case, a woman suffered brain damage through lack of care.

Another patient re-mortgaged their house rather than be treated in a public hospital where doctors wanted to amputate her leg, after undergoing two operations for a broken ankle.

The paper reports patients, doctors and lawyers have noted a rise in cases of this kind.

Can't they all just get along?

French diplomacy at its finest:

France's Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said rival Palestinian factions must bury their differences and form a working government, after bloody strife in the territories last week left 13 dead.

There is a need to "push the Palestinians to overcome their divisions so that they may be united in a government which the international community can work with", he told a news conference alongside his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul Gheit.

...."The only solution is that there be a national unity government which allows Fatah and Hamas to work together," Douste-Blazy said on Saturday.

Well, why didn't anyone else think of that?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Surrender Monkey News

Anyone can get anything from French politicians:

PARIS, Jan 3, 2007 (AFP) - The French government announced plans to create a "legal right" to housing in response to a snowballing campaign that has seen a tent city for the homeless spring up in the heart of Paris.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told a press conference a bill would be presented to the cabinet on January 17 and hopefully adopted before parliament breaks up ahead of April's presidential election.

....President Jacques Chirac used his New Year's address to promise swift government action on a "right to housing" -- a key demand of protestors who have mounted a headline-grabbing campaign in support of France's estimated 100,000 homeless.

Villepin said the government wanted the right to become legally enforceable by 2008 for "people in the most difficult situations: the homeless, but also the working poor and single women with children."

....By 2012, the government wants the right to housing to be legally enforceable for all, with a guarantee provided by the state, or in some cases regional or local authorities.

From that point onwards, "every person or family housed in unworthy or unsanitary conditions" will able to take legal action to have their rights enforced, he said.

Villepin said the law would "make France one of the most advanced countries in terms of social rights".

Housing would become the third legally enforceable right in France, along with access to education and healthcare.

Show 'em the money!

At last, some football players who haven't played too many games without their helmets:

Playing in a bowl is no longer reward enough for some college football players: Some Buckeyes and Gators want a cut of the millions being generated by the championship game.

"We all deserve more money," Ohio State senior guard T.J. Downing said. "We're the reason this money's coming in. We're the guys out there sacrificing our bodies. We're taking years off our lives out here hitting each other, and we're not being compensated for it."

...."I've got to admit, sometimes I look in my hand and look in their hand," Florida defensive tackle Joe Cohen said, referring to the Bowl Championship Series. "I believe players should get a little bit more than what they're getting. I don't want to sound like I'm greedy. It's just reality.
"I believe players should be paid, because I'm broke."

Cohen chuckled when he said it, but it's no laughing matter for the NCAA, which has steadfastly maintained that players - or student-athletes, as the association refers to them - are amateurs and cannot be paid. It's right there in Bylaw 2.9 of the NCAA Manual:

"Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises."

Which is to say, the players can't capitalize on their fame by earning any money endorsing sneakers or energy drinks. Or signing autographs.

....According to the Football Bowl Association, this year's 31 bowl games will generate $210 million for NCAA schools. Over the last six years, bowls have paid schools $900 million, the association said, and it estimates bowl payouts will grow to $2.2 billion over the next 10 years.

The FLUBA has just the consultant for the players in making their case, Harvard economist Robert Barro:

Finally, we come to the NCAA, which has successfully suppressed financial competition in college sports. The NCAA is impressive partly because its limitations on scholarships and other payments to athletes boost the profitability of college sports programs. But even more impressive is the NCAA's ability to maintain the moral high ground. For example, many college basketball players come from poor families and are not sufficiently talented to make it to the National Basketball Assn. Absent the NCAA, such a student would be able to amass significant cash during a college career. With the NCAA in charge, this student remains poor. Nevertheless, the athletic association has managed to convince most people that the evildoers are the schools that violate the rules by attempting to pay athletes rather than the cartel enforcers who keep the student-athletes from getting paid. So given this great balancing act, the NCAA is the clear choice for best monopoly in America.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Siempre y en todos partes

It's the money, Hugo:

Scarce supplies of building materials, cars, food and other goods are imposing costly delays and other efforts to cope, pushing Venezuelan inflation to an annual rate of 17% last month, the central bank said this week.

Some of the shortages are the result of the very price controls that President Hugo Chavez has imposed to combat inflation, say local businessmen.

“All price controls, after a few years, become perverse for production,” said Gustavo Moreno, president of the Venezuelan Agriculture Association. “If there isn’t a periodic price increase to take inflation into account, controls create more problems.”

....“Chavez favours price and capital controls to keep a lid on prices rather than spending less or raising interest rates,” said Alberto Ramos, a senior Latin American economist with Goldman Sachs Group. “We expect Chavez to persist with and possibly deepen these controls.”

At 17%, Venezuela’s inflation rate was the fastest in Latin America last month. ....

Chavez boosted state spending 51% during the first nine months of last year as oil sales jumped to a record for Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest crude oil exporter. The government price caps are helping to contain the inflation “demons”, Chavez said in a November 1 speech in one of the slums in eastern Caracas.

....To escape the controls and supplement their income, some farmers sell their crops at unregulated street markets for a higher price, Moreno said. Others, such as dairy producers, are exacerbating a milk shortage by making more goods whose prices are not regulated, such as cheeses.

Meanwhile, companies are reluctant to invest to increase production. Manufacturers, concerned that Chavez will deepen state involvement in the economy, have trimmed spending on new plant and equipment to the point that nongovernment investment equals no more than 4% of gross domestic product, the lowest among Latin America’s 10 biggest economies.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

But everyone knew her as Nancy

Ann Coulter welcomes the Pelosi Democrats to power today, by showing once again that she may weigh only 98 lbs, but she's no weakling:

The passing of Gerald Ford should remind Americans that Democrats are always lying in wait, ready to force a humiliating defeat on America.

More troops, fewer troops, different troops, "redeployment" — all the Democrats' peculiar little talking points are just a way of sounding busy. Who are they kidding? Democrats want to cut and run as fast as possible from Iraq, betraying the Iraqis who supported us and rewarding our enemies — exactly as they did to the South Vietnamese under Ford.

Liberals spent the Vietnam War rooting for the enemy and clamoring for America's defeat, a tradition they have brought back for the Iraq war.

....In January 1973, the United States signed the Paris Peace accords, which would have ended the war with honor. In order to achieve a ceasefire, Nixon jammed lousy terms down South Vietnam's throat, such as allowing Vietcong troops to remain in the South. But in return, we promised South Vietnam that we would resume bombing missions and provide military aid if the North attacked.

It would have worked, but the Democrats were desperate for America to lose. They invented "Watergate," the corpus delicti of which wouldn't have merited three column-inches during the Clinton years, and hounded Nixon out of office. (How's Sandy Berger weathering that tough wrist-slap?)

Three months after Nixon was gone, we got the Watergate Congress and with it, the new Democratic Party. In lieu of the old Democratic Party, which lost wars out of incompetence and naivete, the new Democratic Party would lose wars on purpose.

Just one month after the Watergate Congress was elected, North Vietnam attacked the South.

Even milquetoast, pro-abortion, detente-loving Gerald R. Ford knew America had to defend South Vietnam or America's word would be worth nothing. As Ford said, "American unwillingness to provide adequate assistance to allies fighting for their lives could seriously affect our credibility throughout the world as an ally." He pleaded repeatedly with the Democratic Congress simply to authorize aid to South Vietnam — no troops, just money.

But the Democrats turned their backs on South Vietnam, betrayed an ally and trashed America's word. Within a month of Ford's last appeal to Congress to help South Vietnam, Saigon fell.

a votre disposition

If we're being rude, at least we can be nice about it, says the Paris tourist board:

The Gallic Shrug is one of many simple but brutally effective gestures listed in a new travel guide produced by the Paris tourist board.

Aware that it can do very little to change the stereotype of the arrogant Frenchman, it wants to help discerning visitors blend in by using the same body language.

C'est So Paris, produced by the Ile-de-France regional committee of tourism, lists the gestures under the colloquial title "Cop the Parisian Attitude".

They are specially designed for British visitors who have traditionally been made to feel uncomfortable by rude waiters, couldn't-care-less taxi drivers or sulky beauties sitting outside cafés on the Champs-Elysées.

....The guide says: "You don't need to be French to understand Parisians. Use the gestures the next time you're in Paris. People will start mistaking you for a native in no time."

....The guide to gestures is part of a £700,000 advertising campaign aimed at Britons that tries to portray the city as energetic, youthful and trendy. "It is to show that Paris isn't a stuffy museum city, but a vibrant destination worth visiting regularly," said the spokesman.

The board is even encouraging Britons to send in pictures "of yourself imitating a Parisian" with the prize of a weekend in Paris.

And second prize is an entire week there?

'a tragic failure of central planning'

That would go with the territory:

A severe shortage of nurses and GPs in the next few years is predicted in a leaked Government report which reveals a staffing time-bomb in the [National Health Service].

....The document – the draft Pay and Workforce Strategy for 2008-11 – was written against the backdrop of the need to reduce the £30 billion NHS pay bill and it will lead to recommendations which will be considered for the Treasury's Comprehensive Spending Review later this year.

....The document says that there are "very volatile" shifts in the number of staff needed and predicts a "sharp reduction" in numbers this year. It predicts a 2.7 per cent loss of jobs, which is substantially more than the 20,000 estimated losses that the Government denied last year.

....Dr Jonathan Fielden, of the BMA's consultants' committee, said it was absurd to suggest that the NHS needed fewer hospital consultants.

"To suggest that there should be fewer consultants, and of a lower grade, will destroy the gold standard of specialist care that patients rightly deserve," he said.

"Workforce planning in the NHS has for many years been woefully inadequate and this latest thinking is yet further evidence."

He added: "The Government should be investing in the NHS by improving capacity, not reducing specialist skills by cutting back on consultants or by introducing an inferior grade."

Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said ministers had rubbished claims of 20,000 job losses, but the prediction was now almost twice that this year.

"The financial crisis in the NHS is now driving Government policy," he added. "By cynically using the misery of unemployment to cut pay, Labour ministers are making hard-working doctors and nurses pay for Governmental incompetence. The effect on morale will be dire.

"We can never again allow such a tragic failure of central planning."

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Start spreading the news

New York, New York is a tollin' town (if Mike Bloomberg gets his way):

A report for the Manhattan Institute think tank proposes extensive central area road pricing and express lanes tolling in New York City. The report comes amid speculation that the Bloomberg administration may embrace some aspects of road pricing as part of a larger initiative to improve infrastructure and cope with growth.

The Manhattan Institute report titled "Battling Traffic" and written by Bruce Schaller is mostly a discussion of public attitudes to pricing and how to overcome the political obstacles, but at the end it has these specific proposals:

- a 10am to 4pm "Midday Driving Fee" tentatively $4 for driving within the Manhattan CBD defined as south of 60th Street (Central Park), downtown Brooklyn might also be covered

- a 6am to 10am "AM Entry Fee" tentatively $4 for traffic entering the Manhattan CBD, existing toll crossing traffic exempt

- a 4pm to 6:30pm "PM Exit Fee" tentatively $4 for traffic exiting the Manhattan CBD, existing toll crossing traffic exempt

- variably (perhaps dynamically) priced toll lanes on congested area expressways, such as the Gowanus and Long Island Expressway

It isn't specified whether these tolls would be workdays only or cover weekends and holidays as well, and there is no discussions of the exemptions or discounts usually given to local residents.

Schaller does make the overarching point that to gain acceptance any scheme must be heavily focussed on the times and places of recurrent congestion and must be closely tailored to that and designed in detail with the best traffic models and, once implemented, adapted with actual experience.

Schaller writes: "Road pricing should be carefully targeted at the problem. The goal is to set tolls and fees relatively high when congestion is most severe. Fee or toll levels should be reduced or eliminated at other times. This approach maximizes the effectiveness of the program while while minimizing the impact on drivers who travel at less congested times, and it provides the greatest choices to drivers who can shift travel times or routes."

Avian Shakespeare

N'kisi, a gray parrot dazzles the Docs:

The finding of a parrot with an almost unparalleled power to communicate with people has brought scientists up short.

The bird, a captive African grey called N'kisi, has a vocabulary of 950 words, and shows signs of a sense of humour.

He invents his own words and phrases if he is confronted with novel ideas with which his existing repertoire cannot cope - just as a human child would do.

...Polished wordsmith

He uses words in context, with past, present and future tenses, and is often inventive.
One N'kisi-ism was "flied" for "flew", and another "pretty smell medicine" to describe the aromatherapy oils used by his owner, an artist based in New York.

When he first met Dr Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee expert, after seeing her in a picture with apes, N'kisi said: "Got a chimp?"

He appears to fancy himself as a humourist. When another parrot hung upside down from its perch, he commented: "You got to put this bird on the camera."

Dr Goodall says N'kisi's verbal fireworks are an "outstanding example of interspecies communication".

Going for a song... Russia to collect the big bucks:

Singer George Michael has been paid a reported £1.5m for an hour's concert at a Russian billionaire's New Year party.

The unnamed businessman paid for Michael to entertain his 300 guests on his private estate 20 miles outside Moscow, the star's spokeswoman said.

The fee is believed to have set a record for a concert in Russia.

....Other stars who have picked up big cheques include Christina Aguilera, reportedly paid £1m for performing three songs at the wedding of Russian oligarch Andrei Melnichenko in September 2005.

Ring in the homeless

It's an election year in France, so the holes in the safety net are ready to be exploited:

From a tent city for Paris street dwellers to a mock "ministry" for the homeless set up in a giant squat, a snowballing campaign in favour of France's down-and-out has thrust the issue centre-stage ahead of presidential elections in April.

Spurred into action by the headline-grabbing campaign, politicians of all stripes -- including the presidential frontrunners Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal -- have been lining up with pledges to tackle the plight of the country's estimated 100,000 homeless people.

In his New Year's address to the nation, President Jacques Chirac promised the government would act in the coming weeks to create a legal right to housing -- one of the key demands of a charter drawn up by the protestors.

....This week eight struggling families, along with several pressure groups, moved into a vacant office block near the Paris stock exchange, creating a giant squat that is to serve as headquarters for the protest movement -- which has since widened to the broader question of decent housing for all.

Campaigners have dubbed the squatted building the "ministry for the housing crisis," which they blame on rising speculation in the property market.

According to the charity Emmaus, one million people in France do not have a home of their own: 100,000 sleep rough, while the rest live in campsites, hotels or shelters. Another two million people are struggling with housing "problems".