Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ring out the old

After fifty years of failure, it would be fitting to say adios:
[Fidel] Castro's younger brother Raul, 77, who replaced the veteran dictator as president in February, will lead the main celebrations in the eastern city of Santiago, addressing a crowd from the same balcony where Fidel proclaimed victory on Jan 1, 1959.

....despite the triumphant slogans displayed in store windows, the new leader has scaled back plans for more lavish festivities after three back-to-back hurricanes in 2008 hammered the already enfeebled centralised economy.

Fidel, 82, will not make an appearance at the anniversary party – he has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. But he still remains an imposing presence and few Cubans expect significant political or economic reforms while he is alive.

At the weekend, his brother was forced to announce fresh austerity measures, including a 50 per cent cut in overseas government travel, after officials admitted the economy had suffered its worse year since the collapse of their old Soviet benefactors in 1991.

The regime fears tougher times ahead this year as the collapse in world oil prices is likely to undermine the petrodollar fuelled largesse of firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Cuba's main financial backer currently supports Havana with subsidised oil supplies worth up to $3 billion (£2.1 billion) a year.

Many Cubans, tired of half a century of hostility with Washington, have pinned their hopes for change on the election of Barack Obama. Indeed, the US President-elect has promised to ease tough restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting their relatives and sending cash remittances to the island.

Havana for its part this autumn quietly removed a prominent billboard near the US Interests Sections depicting George W. Bush as a bloody-fanged vampire in what was regarded as a goodwill gesture towards its long-time foes.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Company He Keeps

It's a clash of civilizations:
[Jimmy] Buffett, who turned 62 on Christmas Day, long ago became an icon of certain baby boomers — perhaps the least-hip demographic in the country — by offering the dream of throwing off their responsibilities for his tropical-party vibe.

But in the past decade, this chronicler of Margaritaville has really cashed in on his image.

....With his estimated annual income of more than $40 million, you might mistake his portfolio for that of Warren Buffett (not a relative). He's done it by sailing beyond most musicians' ticket, T-shirt and poster revenue stream.

The title of his most popular song shows up on restaurants, clothing, booze and casinos. Among the products he's involved with are Landshark Lager, the Margaritaville and Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant chains, clothing and footwear, household items and drink blenders.

The Margaritaville cafe on the Las Vegas strip is said to be the top-grossing restaurant in the nation.

....In October, Buffett was chosen by Vanity Fair as No. 97 on a list of the 100 most influential people. In the world. He's nestled between Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris and anti-poverty crusader [Columbia economist] Jeffrey Sachs.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Broken Crockery Fallacy

Help end the recession; break some stuff:
Stressed workers are flocking to The Venting Place in Tokyo where they pay to hurl crockery against a concrete wall in a bid to ease recession-related angst.

Katsuya Hara, who leads a team of chiropractors operating the therapy, said: "To break something, as all of us know from experience, is something extremely exhilarating and it helps bring down pent-up anger. We hope to become the new way businessmen and women relieve their stress."

Anxious visitors choose the crockery they would like to destroy, ranging from 200 yen (£1.40) for a small cup to 1,000 yen (£7.40) for a larger plate-smashing dish.

Marx was right

First it's tragedy, then comes the farce:
Just in time for Christmas, Karl Marx is finding a new audience among Japanese comic-book fans.

The manga edition of his masterpiece, "Das Kapital," hit Japanese bookstores this month and sold about 6,000 copies in its first few days, said Yusuke Maruo of EastPress.

"I think people are looking to Marx for answers to the problems with the capitalist society," Maruo said. "Obviously, the recent global crisis suggests that the system isn't working properly."

Maruo said he hoped the comic version would provide an enjoyable introduction to the German socialist's original work, written in 1867. The targeted readers are office workers in their 30s.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Hockey Moms to the Rescue

Doing their part for the economy:
'Lipstick effect' in full swing, economists say

....Economists believe that during hard times people forego extravagant purchases like cars, holidays and kitchens and instead spend their money on small luxuries like make-up.

Recent sales figures from some of the world's big cosmetic companies - L'Oréal, Beiersdorf and Shiseido - bear out the theory. In the first half of the year L'Oréal sales were up 5.3 per cent.

The theory was first identified in the Great Depression. Between 1929 and 1933 industrial production in the US halved but sales of cosmetics rose.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cal Ripken It

Show up for work, says the PGA Comish:
According to a story in the Sports Business Journal, [Tim] Finchem said ...: "We're asking every player to add a tournament or two to their historical schedule to assist the tournaments that historically have weak fields. We have a lot of title sponsors this year that are up for renewal. We have to put our best foot forward in terms of presenting our competitions."

He also asked players to be visible in corporate hospitality areas and to communicate that to the leaders of Tour sponsoring companies, according to the Sports Business Journal. He also asked players to avoid being publicly negative about the Tour.

....The PGA Tour isn't immune to the economic slowdown worldwide. Several of its sponsors are financial institutions or car companies, both of which are having significant economic troubles.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's Only Make Believe

Say the Scot scholars about Chick Flicks:
Watching romantic comedies can spoil your love life, a study by a university in Edinburgh has claimed.

Rom-coms have been blamed by relationship experts at Heriot Watt University for promoting unrealistic expectations when it comes to love.

They found fans of films such as Runaway Bride and Notting Hill often fail to communicate with their partner.

Many held the view if someone is meant to be with you, then they should know what you want without you telling them.

Psychologists at the family and personal relationships laboratory at the university studied 40 top box office hits between 1995 and 2005, and identified common themes which they believed were unrealistic.

'Honey, the academics think it would be better if we catch the Steven Seagall picture.'

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stop us if you've heard this one before

A Muslim walks into a bar and says, 'How about a job?':
A Muslim cocktail waitress who claims she was sacked for refusing to wearing an 'indecent' red dress is suing a bar for £20,000.

Fata Lemes, 33, said the figure-hugging scarlet dress made her look like a nightclub hostess and was 'physically revealing and openly sexual'.

....She is suing for sexual harassment and sex discrimination.

She said she was fired when she refused to wear the dress and is claiming £20,000 for injury to her feelings and lost earnings.

What's a nice girl like you doing in....?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Big 7 Oh

Dave Leonhardt says it includes legacy costs:
...the Big Three really does spend about $73 [per hour] on compensation. So the number isn’t made up. But it is the combination of three very different categories.

The first category is simply cash payments.... It includes wages, overtime and vacation pay, and comes to about $40 an hour. ....

The second category is fringe benefits, like health insurance and pensions. ... the benefits amount to $15 an hour or so.

Add the two together, and you get the true hourly compensation of Detroit’s unionized work force: roughly $55 an hour. ....

The third category is the cost of benefits for retirees. These are essentially fixed costs that have no relation to how many vehicles the companies make. But they are a real cost, so the companies add them into the mix — dividing those costs by the total hours of the current work force, to get a figure of $15 or so — and end up at roughly $70 an hour.

Not so fast, says Heritage's James Sherk:
These figures are based upon calculations by the Detroit automakers themselves as published in SEC filings, their annual reports, and other materials. According to briefing materials prepared by General Motors, "The total of both cash compensation and benefits provided to GM hourly workers in 2006 amounted to approximately $73.26 per active hour worked."

....General Motors reports that it pays base wages of roughly $30 an hour.

....Other provisions raise cash earnings above this base pay. For example, workers at Ford earn 10 percent premium payments for taking midnight shifts and double time for overtime hours worked on Sundays.

Autoworkers put in substantial overtime hours at higher rates, raising earnings above their base pay. GM reported that its average hourly employee worked 315 overtime hours in 2006. Including all monetary payments--base wages, shift premiums, overtime pay, as well as vacation and holiday pay--GM reported an average hourly pay of $39.68 an hour in 2006.

To recap, Leonhardt thinks $40/hour is explained by cash wages plus fringe benefits. Sherk says it's cash only, and fringe benefits are extra:
The remaining $33.58 an hour of hourly labor costs that GM reports--46 percent of total compensation--was paid as benefits. These benefits include...:

Hospital, surgical, and prescription drug benefits;
Dental and vision benefits;
Group life insurance;
Disability benefits;
Supplemental Unemployment Benefits (SUB);
Pension payments to workers pensions accounts to be paid out at retirement;
Unemployment compensation; and
Payroll taxes (employer's share).

These benefits cost the Detroit automakers significant amounts of money. Critics contend that these benefit figures include the cost of providing retirement and health benefits to currently retired workers, not just benefits for current workers. Since there are more retired than active employees this makes it appear that GM employees earn far more than they actually do.

This contention contradicts the plain meaning of what the automakers have reported in SEC filings and in their public statements and would be contrary to generally accepted accounting principles.

Sherk follows with a tutorial on accrual accounting practices that make it clear that benefits for current retirees would not show up in these current year expenses (but would be on the balance sheet as liabilities).

Further, that GM, with almost 300,000 retirees receiving almost $5 billion in retirement benefits in 2006 (nearly $17,000 per retiree), couldn't possibly have only $15 (per current worker hour) as Leonhardt is claiming.

(Thanks to NC State's Craig Newmark)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Isn't It Legal?

In the land of Obama--where domestic terrorists go to launch second careers as ghost writers--you can't sell something as insignificant as a U.S Senate seat:
Federal authorities arrested Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich Tuesday on charges that he brazenly conspired to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder.

Blagojevich also was charged with illegally threatening to withhold state assistance to Tribune Co., the owner of the Chicago Tribune, in the sale of Wrigley Field, according to a federal criminal complaint. In return for state assistance, Blagojevich allegedly wanted members of the paper's editorial board who had been critical of him fired.

A 76-page FBI affidavit said the 51-year-old Democratic governor was intercepted on court-authorized wiretaps over the last month conspiring to sell or trade the vacant Senate seat for personal benefits for himself and his wife, Patti.

Otherwise, Blagojevich considered appointing himself. The affidavit said that as late as Nov. 3, he told his deputy governor that if "they're not going to offer me anything of value I might as well take it."

"I'm going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain," Blagojevich allegedly said later that day, according to the affidavit, which also quoted him as saying in a remark punctuated by profanity that the seat was "a valuable thing - you just don't give it away for nothing."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Hard Times

Life imitates Woody Allen, all over Europe and the U.S:
Sex is free at Big Sister, but that is not cheap enough for some men. Customers get the cut rate in return for signing a release form that allows the brothel to film their sexual exploits.

Even with this financial incentive, Big Sister's marketing manager, Carl Borowitz, 26, a Moravian computer engineer, lamented that the global financial crisis had diminished the number of sex tourists in Prague.

....Big Sister is not the only brothel suffering the effects of a battered global economy. While the world's oldest profession may also be one of its most recession-proof businesses, brothel owners in Europe and the United States say belt-tightening caused by the global financial crisis is undermining a once-lucrative industry.

Egbert Krumeich, manager of Artemis, the largest brothel in Berlin, said that the recession had helped dent revenue by 20 percent in November, which is usually peak season for the sex trade. Meanwhile, in Reno, Nevada, the multimillion-dollar Mustang Ranch recently laid off 30 percent of its staff, citing a decline in high-spending clients.

Big Sister is not struggling as much as some of its more traditional rivals; its revenue is largely derived from the €30, or $40 monthly fee each of the company's 10,000 clients pay to gain access to its Web site.

But Borowitz said Big Sister hoped to offset a 15 percent drop in revenue over the past quarter by expanding into the United States. Big Sister also produces cable TV shows that air on Sky Italia and Television X in Britain, as well as DVDs like "World Cup Love Truck" and "Extremely Perverted."

Ester, an 18-year-old prostitute at Big Sister who declined to give her last name, said that big-spending clients had diminished, but noted that she was still earning nearly €3,000 a month, enough to pay rent and to pay for her favorite Louis Vuitton purses.

"The reason I do this is for the money," she said, after gyrating half-naked around a pole. Being filmed, she added, made her feel more like an actress than a sex object.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Little Dab'll Do Ya

Today's lesson in Public Choice Economics finds the usual suspects at work to put our soldiers lives at risk:
Scientists have discovered a lotion that can save the lives of U.S. soldiers exposed to chemical weapons — a product vastly superior to the standard-issue decontamination powder.

Naturally, the Defense Department wants to scrap the powder and switch to the more-effective lotion.

But there's a problem: After being lobbied by the companies making the powder, several members of Congress pushed through two earmarks worth $7.6 million that forced the military for the past two years to keep buying the inferior product.

The product, known as M291, is made from a resin sold exclusively by a Pennsylvania chemical company, which is then processed into powder by a New York company, then assembled into individual kits at a facility in Arkansas.

Among the lawmakers who championed the earmarks are Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Clinton, who is poised to become secretary of state, received nearly $7,000 in campaign donations from the beneficiaries of these earmarks in recent years. Specter got more than $47,000.

Friday, December 05, 2008

No hired hands

J Bradford DeLong isn't whining like Joe Stiglitz, he's making it clear he has no interest in working in the Obama Administration:
Why oh why can't we have a better press corps? We all ask this question. There is something that some of you all can do today. And I beg you to please do so.

If you subscribe to the National Journal, pick up the phone and cancel your subscription, telling whoever you speak to that you will not resume until Stuart Taylor, Jr., is fired from the National Journal's staff.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hip to be Square

At the bowling alley, emulating The Dude:
..."The Big Lebowski," the Coen Brothers movie about an aging slacker who calls himself the Dude, and who, after a thug urinates on his prized rug, becomes caught up in a Chandleresque mystery.

Played with slouchy brio by Jeff Bridges, the Dude's chief pursuits involve bowling, avoiding work and drinking White Russians, the sweet cocktail made with vodka, Kahlúa and cream or milk.

The movie was a flop when it was released, but in the decade since, "The Big Lebowski" has attracted a cult following, and as the film's renown has grown, so has the renown of the White Russian, or, as the Dude calls them, "Caucasians." The drink is the subject of experimentation at cutting-edge bars like Tailor, in SoHo, which serves a crunchy dehydrated version — a sort of White Russian cereal.

....To see the White Russian renaissance in full bloom, it is instructive to attend a Lebowski Fest, the semiannual gatherings where fans of the movie revel in the Dude's deeply casual approach to life. There, the White Russian is consumed in oil-tanker quantities.

This was much in evidence at a fest held last month in New York, where 1,000 or so "achievers," as the movie's buffs call themselves, took over Lucky Strike Lanes, a bowling alley in New York. The White Russian demand was such that, in addition to two bars, a White Russian satellite station had been set up and bartenders were in back mixing vats of reinforcements.

It turned out that management was following a directive from the event's organizers. "When we line up a venue, we always have the White Russian talk," said Will Russell, a founder of the Lebowski Fest.

Russell has learned from experience to lay in provisions. He recalled an incident at an early festival in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky

"Milk sold out within a one-mile radius of the bowling alley" where the event was held, he said.

"We had to go to every local mini-market and gas station to satisfy the requirements of the achievers."


If you're dying of cancer in Britain:
When Bruce Hardy's kidney cancer spread to his lung, his doctor recommended an expensive new pill from Pfizer. But Hardy is British, and the British health authorities refused to buy the medicine.

....A clinical trial showed that the pill, called Sutent, delays cancer progression for six months at an estimated treatment cost of $54,000.

But at that price, Bruce Hardy's life is not worth prolonging, according to a British government agency, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. The institute, known as NICE, has decided that Britain, except in rare cases, can afford only £15,000, or about $22,750, to save six months of a citizen's life.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Madness...Method to it

John Muellbauer thinks Bernanke has his Batmobile fuelled and ready to go:
It is time for unorthodox policy – one far more effective than Milton Friedman’s helicopter drops of money – because it is reversible. Indeed it is akin to ‘stabilising speculation’ by central banks.

The world’s main central banks should collectively buy mainstream securities (not the obscure assets as initially proposed under TARP). This is the best way to put liquidity into the pockets of consumers and companies. But these securities must be targeted to relieve the critical credit blockages impeding recovery. Many of the assets discussed below are now at the lowest real prices seen in decades. The influx of cash and credit will stabilise global activity, eventually increasing the real value of most of these assets. In due course, the central banks will be able to sell back the assets to the private sector. Assuming the stimulus works, this operation will be profitable for the central banks – a important difference when comparing this to fiscal measures that raise national debts.

The financial accelerator

A key part of the economic logic behind this unconventional monetary policy is provided by what economists call the financial accelerator, well explained by Bernanke (1983), building on Irving Fisher’s 1933 theory of debt deflation.

Running with the Big Macs

Welcome to the club:
In a note posted on its support site in late November, Apple said it wanted to "encourage" people to use anti-virus to stay safe online.

The move is widely seen as a response to the growing trend among cyber criminals of booby-trapping webpages that can catch out Mac users.

Before now Mac users have been largely free of the security problems that plague Microsoft's Windows. recent months, hi-tech criminals have signalled a change in tactics away from e-mail borne viruses. Instead, many are infiltrating popular webpages in a bid to infect the machine of any and every visitor.

Many seek to steal valuable information such as login names, passwords or game accounts instead of trying to install themselves on a machine.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Chuck and Sarah, sittin' in a tree...

In camo, waiting for a moose to trot by:
Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is not known as a rugged outdoorsman type, has won a hunting award that puts him in an odd pairing with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who hunts moose and turns them into stew.

Field and Stream magazine singled out both lawmakers for praise in its Year in Review issue.

.... Schumer was a respectable marksman when he was a teenager, and even won an award, according to his spokesman - who blasted out a press release heralding the Field and Stream award.

...Schumer knows how to sniff out a political issue that plays well statewide.

Schumer joined an effort by North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad to voluntarily encourage landowners to allow private hunting on their land, which opened up many hunting grounds upstate.

As much as 85 percent of New York's land is private and most of it is off-limits to hunters.

The magazine cited the legislation in its award statement, while calling Palin the first "true hunter" since Teddy Roosevelt to run for executive office.

Old Folks Away From Home

Might raise real estate prices in hard hit areas:
[Real] Estate agents in the United States hope a new administration in Washington D.C. will kick start talks for a retirement visa, the so-called “silver card” which would allow foreigners to easily retire in the U.S.

“I’m encouraged,” said Tony Macaluso, the Florida-based agent championing the visa.
The retirement visa is one of those ideas that’s so simple and makes so much sense it’s amazing that it’s never been adopted. While countries like Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico and Belize present a variety of programs to encourage international pensioners to buy homes, the U.S. offers no simple path for a foreign citizen to retire in places like Florida and California.

Although details still need to be hashed out, a retirement visa would allow foreign citizens of a certain age with a steady pension fund income and a few other verifiable requirements to retire in the U.S. without a hassle.

“There are a lot of people around the world who would love to enjoy their golden years in the U.S. and we don’t have a way for them to do it,” said Macaluso, who served as the 2008 international operations chairman for the National Association of Realtors and now fills a similar role with the Florida Association Realtors.

....“This is not an immigration proposal; it’s an economic proposal,” Macaluso said.

A recent study commissioned by NAR found 7.5 percent of foreign citizens polled expressed an interest in retiring in the U.S.—an unassuming number that could translate to millions of potential buyers, Macaluso says. That could provide a much-needed boost for markets like Florida, California and Colorado.

“If this was in place by now, a lot of inventory would be absorbed and prices would be strengthened because we would have an active market,” Macaluso said.


Barack Obama appears to be emulating the old N Y Yankees philosophy of buying up all the good players and have them sit on the bench, rather than let them play for the opposition (which has names like Reid and Pelosi:
Paul Volcker, who helped tame runaway inflation in the 1980s during two terms as chairman of the Federal Reserve, has agreed to lead a new White House economic advisory committee, President-elect Barack Obama said on Wednesday, praising Volcker as "one of the world's foremost economic policy experts."

....Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who was a leading economic adviser to the Obama presidential campaign, will be the top staff member of the advisory board, the president-elect said, calling him "one of America's most promising economic minds, known for his path-breaking work on tax policy and industrial organization."

Adding them to the first team of Summers, Geithner, Romer and Orzag might make it crowded in the dugout.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Save the Tiger

Or, bail out his sponsor?
General Motors Corp, which has warned that it will run short of cash early next year without support, and popular professional golfer Tiger Woods said on Monday that they would end their endorsement deal at the end of the year.

...."In light of the news coming out of Washington, this decision is the result of discussions that started earlier in the year, and the timing of this agreement with these other activities is purely coincidental," Mark LaNeve, GM's North American vice president of sales, said in a statement.

The Detroit automaker, which spends heavily in golf, has been slashing marketing costs across all venues, previously disclosing reduced spending on motorsports, as well as eliminating television ads next year during such events as the Oscars and Emmy award shows and the National Football League's Super Bowl championship game.

Terms of the arrangement were not disclosed although GM spokesman Pete Ternes said it ends the automaker's five-year deal with Woods a year early. Woods will continue to drive Buick vehicles through 2009.

What's the matter with the clothes I'm wearing?

There would be something illegal with the car they're driving, but in Saudi Arabia, it's still rock n' roll to the she's:
They cannot perform in public. They cannot pose for album cover photographs. Even their jam sessions are secret, for fear of offending the religious authorities in this ultraconservative kingdom.

But the members of Saudi Arabia's first all-girl rock band, the Accolade, are clearly not afraid of taboos.

The band's first single, "Pinocchio," has become an underground hit here, with hundreds of young Saudis downloading the song from the group's Web site. Now, the pioneering young foursome, all of them college students, want to start playing regular gigs - inside private compounds, of course - and recording an album.

"In Saudi, yes, it's a challenge," said the group's spiky-haired lead singer, Lamia, who has piercings on her left eyebrow and beneath her bottom lip. (Like other band members, she gave only her first name.) "Maybe we're crazy. But we wanted to do something different."

In a country where women are not allowed to drive and rarely appear in public without their faces covered, the band is very different indeed. The prospect of female rockers clutching guitars and belting out angry lyrics about a failed relationship - the theme of "Pinocchio" - would once have been unimaginable here.

But this country's harsh code of public morals has slowly thawed, especially in Jidda, by far the kingdom's most cosmopolitan city. A decade ago the cane-wielding religious police terrorized women who were not dressed according to their standards. Young men with long hair were sometimes bundled off to police stations to have their heads shaved, or worse.

Today, there is a growing rock scene with dozens of bands, some of them even selling tickets to their performances. Hip-hop is also popular. The religious police - strictly speaking, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice - have largely retreated from the streets of Jidda, and they are somewhat less aggressive even in the kingdom's desert heartland.

The change has been especially noticeable since the terrorist attacks on the United States of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Saudis confronted the effects of extremism both outside and inside the kingdom.

More than 60 percent of Saudi Arabia's population is under 25, and many younger people are pressing for greater freedoms.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Doing violence to the idea...

...of education, in the UK:
Secondary schools are being fined millions of pounds a year for expelling violent and abusive pupils.

....Chris Keates, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Clawing back per pupil funding is understandable, as this funding should follow the child.

"What is totally unacceptable is this removal of additional money, without any clear criteria. It undermines the Government's stated view that head teacher and governing bodies should be free to exclude pupils when it is necessary.

"Stopping schools from permanently excluding pupils not only puts the education of that child at risk but puts the education of other pupils at risk.

"More and more teachers are telling us that they are coming under pressure not to exclude pupils. Fining schools distorts the system and should be outlawed.

"The Government needs to launch its own inquiry, as it did with admissions, to look at which authorities are setting these arbitrary penalties."

Cafe Standards

Are making the traditional French cafe a memory:
In 1960, France had 200,000 cafés, said Bernard Quartier, president of the National Federation of Cafés, Brasseries and Discotheques. Now it has fewer than 41,500, with an average of two closing every day.

Not only are the French spending less and drinking less, cutting down on the intensity and quality of the debates, but on Jan. 1, France extended its smoking ban to bars, cafés and restaurants.

Marco Mayeux, 42, the bartender of Le Relais in Paris, said the ban alone had cut his coffee and bar business by 20 percent.

"A place like mine doesn't appeal to everyone; it's very working stiff," he said.

Daniel Perrey, 57, owner of the Café du Crucifix in Crimolois, blamed social change.
People are drinking less, smoking less and spending less, and even those who drink are newly wary of the local police. President Nicolas Sarkozy has asked the police to crack down on drunken drivers.

The café, Perrey said, is a kind of public living room, especially in small towns and cities.

"We have to be very careful," he said. "If we standardize everything in France, and we study everything, and forbid everything, we destroy respect for our culture."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Barack and the Barbaric Pirates

Will the new CinC take the opportunity to make his place in history alongside Thomas Jefferson:
Last night the Indian Navy Ship Tabar struck a long overdue blow for freedom of the seas by sinking a pirate mother ship in the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden. At last, the pirates will know that the hijacking party has been crashed.

....Pirate hijackings are one of the oldest forms of naval warfare. The more civil term, privateer, was used by the Continental Congress to allow designated ships to attack any British ship during the revolution. The British allowed similar activities and the French attacked both sides. The tables turned after the revolution, as the United States became a world merchant sea power and began to confront the Barbary pirates based in North Africa, specifically Tripoli. These pirates had been terrorizing the Mediterranean basin for centuries and having learned that tribute and ransom could be collected, turned it into a business. Sound familiar?

Young America was drawn into this cyclone because it had no alternative. As resentment grew in Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the Congress, construction of new ships was authorized, which were available when Algiers declared war on the US for not paying tribute. After two wars in 1801-1805 and 1815, the United States obtained freedom of access in that area.

Why this diversion into history? History is starting to repeat itself, but with much higher risk levels. No one seems to know where the ransom money is going. Since Somalia has been a longstanding supporter of Islamic terrorist activity, it seems reasonable to assume that most of this money is going to expand terrorist attacks someplace.

Honeymoon Over

So much for making up with terrorists:
Al-Qaida's No. 2 leader used a racial epithet to insult Barack Obama in a message posted Wednesday, describing the president-elect in demeaning terms that imply he does the bidding of whites.

The message appeared chiefly aimed at persuading Muslims and Arabs that Obama does not represent a change in U.S. policies. Ayman al-Zawahri said in the message, which appeared on militant Web sites, that Obama is "the direct opposite of honorable black Americans" like Malcolm X, the 1960s African-American rights leader.

In al-Qaida's first response to Obama's victory, al-Zawahri also called the president-elect—along with secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice—"house negroes."

Speaking in Arabic, al-Zawahri uses the term "abeed al-beit," which literally translates as "house slaves." But al-Qaida supplied English subtitles of his speech that included the translation as "house negroes."

The message also includes old footage of speeches by Malcolm X in which he explains the term, saying black slaves who worked in their white masters' house were more servile than those who worked in the fields. Malcolm X used the term to criticize black leaders he accused of not standing up to whites.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the latest message was just "more despicable comments from a terrorist."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Long and Winding Road...

That leads to bankruptcy reorganization (or liquidation) for GM?
Detroit's Big Three automakers pleaded with a reluctant Congress Tuesday for a $25 billion lifeline to save the once-proud titans of U.S. industry, pointedly warning of a national economic catastrophe should they collapse. Millions of layoffs would follow their demise, they said, as damaging effects rippled across an already-faltering economy.

T'was a consummation devoutly to be wished in some circles:
The streetcar did not die, as [Van] Wilkins contended, because of demographics or economics or disinvestments or evolution; it died because GM in 1922 made a conscious decision to kill it and, for the next several decades, pursued a strategy designed to accomplish this objective. Yet, by reason of timidity or negligence or ignorance or cowardice, Wilkins simply cannot bring himself to admit that a powerful corporation would seek to maximize profits by eliminating its competition.

That's John Kerry's former Yale debating team partner, Bradford Snell, in full dudgeon mode, expounding his theory--which is the former Nader Raider's career--of GM's evildoing (oh, btw, GM also conspired with the Nazis says Snell).

As the FLUBA explained in 2004 Snell wanted to destroy GM as far back as (at least) 1974:
AMERICAN GROUND TRANSPORT: A Proposal for Restructuring the Automobile, Truck, Bus & Rail Industries

Presented to a Senate Committee in that year, Part III spelled it out:
[We] recommend...reorganization of the automobile and truck industries into smaller, more competitive units. More specifically, it assumes the wisdom of the decentralized method of operations adopted by the automakers. Motor vehicle assembly, engine production, body stamping and dozens of other major automotive functions are currently undertaken in hundreds of physically distinct plants located throughout the country. This proposal would not interfere with this arrangement. It would, however, suggest a change in ownership: Each group of plants now separate in law as well. Reorganization along these general lines, it concludes, would allow for a greater degree of competition and technological flexibility at every level of motor vehicle production. In short, a competitively structured industry would be better able to anticipate and adapt to a changing world.

And, this 2006 sighting seems to support the idea that he (and pal Ralph) are still at it:
On my flight home (the first leg of the flight was into LA) I ended up sitting next to a guy named Bradford Snell. We got to talking and shared a bit of info about what we do. He said that he was a writer and was working on a history of General Motors…..

We talked about GM and China. He said that his friend Ralph Nader had gone to China to try and convince them to invest in mass transit. He said China currently has 100 cities with populations over 10 million (that in itself is pretty scary.) and that they are quickly becoming the biggest market for cars, which will lead to all the associated problems. Nader was told while he was there that GM had been there 6 weeks earlier and had convinced the Chinese government that car manufacturing provides a base for large economic development…..

As we talked, I mentioned the GM Streetcar Conspiracy. Well, apparently he was the government attorney that presented information/evidence to the Senate in 1974 that painted the picture of GM systematically destroying the trolley lines in many American cities. The Senate was conducting hearings because the energy crisis at that time had many people angry. They wanted to know what led up to the current situation. So, it turns out that Bradford Snell is at the heart of the GM Streetcar Conspiracy. How strange is that?

You don't know the half of it, buddy.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Thomas Cooley thinks we got complacent:
The last really sharp recession in the United States was from 1981 to 1982, when real output fell by more than 4% below trend, and the unemployment rate rose to over 10%. ....

Following that recession, something remarkable happened. The volatility in the U.S. economy declined sharply. Even though we have had two recessions in the ensuing years--in 1991 and 2002--both were relatively mild and short-lived.

Surprisingly, the U.S. economy remained dramatically more stable in spite of some major disruptions in financial markets in the U.S. and abroad over the same period.

....How calm was it? One measure that people have used is the cyclical volatility of the gross national product--it declined by one-half in the period from 1983 to 2006 compared to the period from 1955 to 1983.

The variability of consumption, investment and employment also fell by roughly similar amounts. The U.S. economy was less volatile and hence seemed less risky. A similar decline in volatility was documented in other countries as well. This widespread decline in volatility was dubbed the Great Moderation.

....There is [a] possible link between the Great Moderation and the financial crisis that is worth thinking about, because it may help to inform the financial regulation of the future. The idea is simply that the decline in volatility led financial institutions to underestimate the amount of risk they faced and overestimate the amount of leverage they could handle, thus essentially (though unintentionally) reintroducing a large measure of volatility into the market.

Financial institutions typically manage their risk using what they call value at risk or VaR. Without getting into the technicalities of VaR (and there is a very long story to be told about the misuse of these methods), it is highly likely that the Great Moderation led many risk managers to drastically underestimate the aggregate risk in the economy. A 50% decline in aggregate risk is huge, and after 20 years, people come to count on things being the same.

Risk managers are supposed to address these problems with stress testing--computing their value at risk assuming extreme events--but they often don't. The result was that firms vastly overestimated the amount of leverage they could assume, and put themselves at great risk.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Vikings leaving the sinking longboat

When the going gets tough in Iceland:
Iceland’s banking system is ruined. GDP is down 65% in euro terms. Many companies face bankruptcy; others think of moving abroad. A third of the population is considering emigration. The British and Dutch governments demand compensation, amounting to over 100% of Icelandic GDP, for their citizens who held high-interest deposits in local branches of Icelandic banks.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Miller Time

The Fly Under the Bridge Academy's Outreach Program to Affable Comedians Whose Jib is Cuttable--polling of the FLUBA's members shows 100% solidarity with Dennis Miller's choice in the recent election for POTUS--but some of whose jiblets are spoiled, has had its candle lit, Hiroshi.

On one recent talk radio program, the aforementioned Mr. Miller mentioned that he was reading Ida Tarbell's history of Standard Oil, and asked if anyone in his audience knew anything about it. Subsequently, the FLUBA's Head of Debunking Emotional Monopoly Arguments Nationwide--hereinafter, HeDEMAN--found himself speaking on the telephone with the comedian.

HeDEMAN, trained to teach by industry specific example, opened by saying that the Tarbell diatribe is probably as accurate as one could expect from the daughter of a man who lost his Pennsylvania oil refining business due to his inability to compete with John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler; say, like a book written by a child of Joan Rivers (or, David Bremmer) purporting to excuse her mother's late night talk show career failure to a conspiracy led by Fred DeCordova (Northwestern, 1931), to keep advertisers from buying time on competing shows.

HeDEMAN has been advised not to quit his day job.

However, the point is valid. Tarbell was not an economist, but a gifted polemicist. Facts do not matter to such. Only what they can get their readership to believe are the facts, matters. And, she convinced many people that her version of the story was factual.

Including, it appears, Dennis Miller. Fortunately--and from a surprising source, there are antidotes available on Al Gore's invention. From which we summarize:

John D. Rockfeller began his business career at the age of 16, in the 1850's, as a clerk in a firm that sold agricultural commodities, in Cleveland, Ohio, after studying at a business college to learn bookkeeping and other basic skills.

He quickly impressed his employers, and gained more and more responsibilities. One of which was what today would be called logistics; the efficient movement of products from production to consumers. That skill would one day be used to build the greatest corporation of the 19th century: Standard Oil.

In 1859, oil was discovered in nearby Titusville, PA. Soon Rockefeller realized the opportunity available to him. During the Civil War Rockefeller became a refiner of oil, producing kerosene that allowed homeowners to light their homes.

By 1868 Rockefeller--and his partners, including the indispensable Henry Flagler--was the largest refiner in the world. He'd realized that Cleveland had an advantage over other locations where refineries operated; midway between New York and Chicago, on Lake Erie, he not only had water transportation via the Erie Canal, there were two railroads available to transport his kerosene to northeastern markets. As opposed to the Pittsburgh area which had only Tom Scott's Pennsylvania RR.

Which eventually proved decisive, allowing what became Standard Oil of Ohio, to dominate 90% of the kerosene market in the 1870's. Standard was able to ship huge quantities at regular schedules, which allowed it to negotiate favorable freight rates from the railroads, and thus deliver its products to consumers at lower prices than the smaller, independent refineries in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Rockefeller tried to bring those small refineries into the Standard Oil organization, and allow them to profit along with him. But, many--including the Tarbells--resisted doggedly, and eventually were driven out of business, because consumers had the lower cost option of Standard Oil products.

That didn't sit well with romantics such as the Tarbells, and Ida later wrote a series of magazine articles, eventually made into a book, attacking Rockefeller for the sin of economic efficiency. Consider, from chapter three of that book:

[The small refiners of northwestern Pennsylvania] believed in independent effort-every man for himself and fair play for all. They wanted competition, loved open fight. They considered that all business should be done openly; that the railways were bound as public carriers to give equal rates; that any combination which favoured one firm or one locality at the expense of another was unjust and illegal. This belief long held by many of the oil men had been crystallised by the uprising into a common sentiment. It had become the moral code of the region.

Mr. Rockefeller's point of view was different....he knew that the railroads ... had regularly granted special rates and rebates to those who had large amounts of freight. That is, you were able to bargain with the railroads as you did with a man carrying on a strictly private business depending in no way on a public franchise. Moreover, Mr. Rockefeller probably believed that, in spite of the agreements, if he did not get-rebates somebody else would; that they were for the wariest, the shrewdest, the most persistent. If somebody was to get rebates, why not he? This point of view was no uncommon one. Many men held It and felt a sort of scorn, as practical men always do for theorists, when it was contended that the shipper was as wrong in taking rates as the railroads in granting them.

Thus, on one hand there was an exaggerated sense of personal independence, on the other a firm belief in combination ; on one hand a determination to root out the vicious system of rebates practised by the railway, on the other a determination to keep it alive and profit by it. Those theories which the body of oil men held as vital and fundamental Mr. Rockefeller and his associates either did not comprehend or were deaf to.

Or, simply, recognized the fundamental economic reality that it is less costly for a railroad to show up at one location, on a regular schedule to pick up sixty tanker cars of kerosene and haul them to New York, than it is to send a locomotive to numerous small refineries in Pennsylvania picking up a tanker here, two or three there, until a trainload is assembled, perhaps 20 stops (and days) later.

And Tarbell knew, because she quotes a railroad executive saying so, that anyone who would ship the same quantities on the same schedule as Rockefeller, would get the same rates as Rockefeller. And, Rockefeller was offering to help those refiners do just that. But, their pride went beforeth their fall.

And, the recognition of this simple economics lesson didn't stop serving well the country with oil. Henry Flagler retired from management of Standard Oil in the early 1880's and took his expertise to northern Florida. There he bought a small railroad and extended it south, along the eastern coast to serve the luxury hotels he built in St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Palm Beach and Miami--even building track over the water to Key West's deepwater port.

The same laws of economics that produced Standard Oil's near monopoly of the kerosene business transformed the backwater state of Florida into what it is today.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Wedding Bell Blues

Left your heart in San Francisco?
A week before Election Day, Christopher Burnett's floral shop filled an order for one of the many same-sex weddings he has worked in the last five months: eight corsages, a dozen boutonnieres and two bouquets for the two brides, each with three dozen roses.

Now, Burnett said, since voter approval Tuesday of Proposition 8, which amended the state's Constitution to recognize marriages only between men and women, that type of business is gone.

"I have done a gay wedding every week," he said. "And so it's very disheartening, because other business is very slow."

Even as opponents of the measure officially conceded defeat on Thursday, California business owners - particularly those in the marriage business - were trying to determine how many wedding cakes would go unsold and how many tuxedos unrented.

....In Palm Springs, another gay-friendly city, Mayor Steve Pougnet said he had performed 115 same-sex weddings since June, when such ceremonies began, some of which had as many as 180 guests. By contrast, this week the city has canceled eight planned ceremonies.

"That's a huge economic impact, which is gone in these difficult economic times," said Pougnet, who is openly gay and married his partner in September.

Another mayor, Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, was blunt.

"It's a great day for Massachusetts," Newsom said, referring to one of only two remaining states to allow same-sex marriage. The other, Connecticut, legalized such unions in October.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Call to prayer

In the brave new world:
A new software programme for BlackBerries combines Hebrew prayers and technology.

The programme, which provides texts of daily prayers instead of the traditional, printed book, has been dubbed "the JewBerry".

The upgrade costs $30 (£19) and more than 10,000 customers have already purchased the programme, which is not linked to Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry.

It has been created by two entrepreneurs who attended New York's Yeshiva University - which combines academic learning with the teachings of the Torah.

Jonathan Bennett, the co-creator, said: "Throughout the day, Jews gather in office-building stairwells and conference rooms to pray, and while sometimes you might not remember your prayer book, no one goes anywhere without their BlackBerry."

New Life in Old Model

Ray Fair, after overpredicting George W. Bush's two-party vote share in 2004, hits it (after correcting for the deterioration in the economy in October) in 2008:
...the predicted Republican vote share (of the two-party vote) is 48.09 percent. So the prediction is 51.91 for the Democrats and 48.09 for the Republicans, for a spread of 3.82.

The current situation is unusual in that the economy since the end of the third quarter appears to have gotten much worse. People may perceive the economy to be worse than the economic values through the third quarter indicate, which, other things being equal, suggests that the vote equation may overpredict the Republican share.

But only slightly, McCain appears to have gotten 47%

Monday, November 03, 2008

It's the economy, stupid

Larry Bartels explains why John McCain is unlikely to win in this climate:
Voters often misperceive what life has been like during the incumbent's administration. They are inordinately focused on the here and now, mostly ignoring how things have gone earlier in the incumbent's term. And they have great difficulty judging which aspects of their own and the country's well-being are the responsibility of elected leaders and which are not.

This election year, an economic downturn turned into an economic crisis with the dramatic meltdown of major financial institutions. John McCain will be punished at the polls as a result. Whether the current economic distress is really President Bush's fault, much less McCain's, is largely beside the point.

Does all of this make voters stupid? No, just human. And thus -- to borrow the title of another popular book by behavioral economist Dan Ariely -- "predictably irrational."

That may be bad enough.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Ya think?

David Broder is being very coy:
After his performance in 2004, some Democratic activists had marked him [Obama] as the best convention speaker since Ted Kennedy, Ann Richards or Mario Cuomo. Others had read his book, "Dreams from My Father," and had declared him their finest literary talent since Ted Sorensen was ghostwriting for John F. Kennedy.

Which conceals that the author and Pulitzer Prize winner of 1955's Profiles in Courage was officially Senator John F Kennedy. Until earlier this year when Sorensen finally admitted what he'd been denying for half a century:
In 1957, newspaper columnist Drew Pearson appeared on ABC News' The Mike Wallace Show and claimed that the book had been ghostwritten and later named Kennedy’s "research associate" Theodore C. Sorensen as the ghost writer. Both Kennedy and Sorensen denied this claim. ABC News, under pressure from Kennedy and his lawyer Clark Clifford[citation needed], retracted the story. However years later historian Herbert Parmet analyzed the text of Profiles in Courage and wrote in his book The Struggles of John F. Kennedy that although Kennedy did oversee the production and provided for the direction and message of the book, it was clearly Sorensen who provided most of the work that went into the end product.

In May 2008, Sorensen in his autobiography, Counselor, largely confirmed allegations that he had done much, if not most, of the writing. Sorensen wrote that he "did a first draft of most chapters," "helped choose the words of many of its sentences," and "privately boasted or indirectly hinted that [he] had written much of the book." Sorensen claimed that in May 1957, Kennedy "unexpectedly and generously offered, and I happily accepted, a sum" for his work on the book. The sum Kennedy paid to Sorensen exceeded half the book's royalties from its first five years of sales and led Sorensen to inform Kennedy that he was disinclined to push for recognition of his participation.

So, is Broder hinting at something too dangerous to say out loud?
[Chris] Yavelow, an award-winning composer and author, had worked for years developing what he believes is the most comprehensive linguistics tool for authorship detection, a software product trademarked as FictionFixer.

....Yavelow compared Obama’s Dreams with Bill Ayers’ memoir, Fugitive Days, he found the similarity of the two books “striking.” He then quickly corrects himself: “’Striking’ is an understatement for the relationship FictionFixer uncovered between Fugitive Days and Dreams From My Father.”

For instance, Dreams averages 17.61 words and 26.48 syllables for non-dialogue sentences. Fugitive Days averages 17.62 words and 26.27 syllables.

Another example is what Yavelow calls “attributions”—e.g., he “asked,” she “said,” they “wondered.” Some authors use as few as three. Many use fewer than twenty. Dreams, however, uses 36; Fugitive Days 34, and with only four exceptions—three of these used only once—the two books use the very same attributions.

Yavelow compares the two books on any number of other characteristics and concludes, “There is a strong likelihood that the author of Fugitive Days ghost-wrote Dreams From My Father using recordings of dialog (either tape recorded or notes). Alternatively, another scenario could be possible: Ayers might have served as a ‘book doctor’.”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

They'd rather be in Philadelphia

Other than dying, they had a great year:
While things might be topsy-turvy in the financial markets above ground, it's still a bull market in the boneyard. The 13 famous names that make up our Top-Earning Dead Celebrities earned a combined $194 million over the last 12 months.

....Debuting on the list in third place is Australian actor Heath Ledger, most famous for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight, the latest installment of the Batman movie franchise. At the time of his tragic overdose in January, the 28-year star seemed poised on the cusp of a lucrative film career.

Ledger had reportedly secured a deal for his role in The Dark Knight that included merchandising (think Joker action figures) and a percentage of film revenues. With The Dark Knight grossing $991 million in box office revenue worldwide, we estimate his earnings at $20 million.

Also debuting on our list is Paul Newman, who died in September at age 83. His "Newman's Own" line of salad dressings, organic popcorn and spaghetti sauces had sales of more $120 million last year. When he was alive, Newman donated all of his profits from the venture to charity, and his estate plans to continue doing so. Add in the residuals from a lifetime of high-profile movie roles, and we calculate Newman earned $5 million last year.


Jack Cashill reports that four independent sources agree with his hypothesis that Bill Ayers had a hand in writing Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father:
"Using the chi-square statistic," observes one professor, "Obama's and Ayers's books were indistinguishable, while Obama's book was easily distinguishable from books by other authors."

Writes another analyst, using his own proprietary software, "There is a strong likelihood that the author of "Fugitive Days" ghost-wrote "Dreams From My Father" using recordings of dialog (either tape recorded or notes). Alternatively, another scenario could be possible: Ayers might have served as a 'book doctor.'"

One systems engineer writes, "The statistical style analysis performed by our research team suggests that the writing style of 'Dreams From My Father' is significantly more similar to the style observed in 'Fugitive Days' than to the style found in other works by Barack Obama such as 'Audacity of Hope.'"

He continues, "Even more interesting, when we extract those sections of 'Dreams From My Father' that Dr. Cashill believes to be Ayers' writing and treat this as a unique document, the style analysis software identifies a stronger correlation between this sample and Ayers' 'Fugitive Days' than we see between this same sample and the remainder of 'Dreams From My Father'!
Thus we have reason to believe that 'Dreams From My Father' had at least two authors, and one author's measured style features more closely match those of Ayers than they match those of the other author(s)."

"Under the Q-value statistic," argues one university-based analyst who tested "Dreams" against Ayers' 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days," "segments of 'Dreams' consistently compared as well with 'Fugitive' segments as it did with other segments of 'Dreams' itself. In contrast, 'Dreams' compared poorly with other documents."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Trailer Treasure

Upwardly mobile at the mobile home:
Missy Quinn's father Simon, 35, paid £16,000 for her wedding dress, which was studded with Swarovski crystals and came with a 10ft train so heavy it took ten guests to help her out of the Rolls-Royce Phantom that brought her to church.

There were 150 guests at the reception and Mr Quinn also paid for cars, accommodation, the tiara and a £500 bouquet.

In total, it cost five times as much as the average UK wedding. Mr Quinn, who works surfacing driveways, insisted that the expense was worth it and added: "I'm very proud of her today."

....She met her husband Thomas at Alton Towers theme park aged 13 and stayed in touch despite her traveller family leaving their Stoke-on-Trent caravan park every summer while he stayed with his parents in Wolverhampton.

Missy and Thomas celebrated their honeymoon in Turkey before moving into their own £18,000 caravan, which was a wedding gift from her parents.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Man's Home... his sand castle:
Caribbean round grains, favored in creating smooth surfaces for plastering and finishing, are being hauled away by the truckload late at night. On some islands not much bigger than Manhattan, towns and ecologically sensitive areas are now exposed to tidal surges and rough seas.

In Puerto Rico, thieves once mined the dunes in the northern coastal town of Isabela, said Ernesto Diaz of the Department of Natural Resources. But now they are stealing the beaches of the tiny island of Vieques — 52 square miles where the U.S. military only recently halted its controversial bombing practice.

Among the hardest hit islands is Grenada, where officials are building a $1.2 million sea wall to protect the 131-square-mile island. Large-scale sand thefts have exposed north-coast towns to rough seas, said Joseph Gilbert, the minister of works and environment.

One of the region's largest sand thefts targeted Jamaica, where nearly 100 truckloads were swiped from private property in the northwest, exposing protected mangroves and a limestone forest to wind and waves.

Roughly 706,000 cubic feet of sand were taken in late July, enough to fill roughly 10 Olympic-sized pools, said Jamaica Mines Commissioner Clinton Thompson, who suspects government officials were involved.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Man Who Always Returned

To tell the same story about the streets of Oslo:
Trond Bjørgan, chief executive of the newly renamed transit system KTP (formerly Oslo Sporveier), is currently involved in public hearings at City Hall that are probing the ticketing system scandal. It has cost the taxpayers an estimated NOK 620 million over 24 years, and still isn't ready for widespread public operation.

....There have been some signs that the ticketing gates and equipment installed several years ago around Oslo's T-bane system on board trams and buses might start working soon. A partial introduction was made Monday, but officials aren't promising full operation before "sometime" in 2009. The gates and equipment have caused confusion for travelers, not least for tourists trying to figure out how the ticketing works.

The new system is supposed to allow passengers to use the same electronic tickets for the tram, T-bane, train and bus systems that serve Oslo and the surrounding metropolitan area in Akershus County. Millions have been spent on research and development since 1984.

Bjørgan has been chief of the Oslo portion, formerly Sporveier, for the past 12 years and inherited the project that hadn't succeeded for a dozen years before that. He blamed complicated fare zones as one of the reasons that a common ticketing system has been so delayed. Technical problems with the equipment purchased from Thales of France have also caused innumerable headaches.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Not getting your goat

It looks like a blue Christmas without one in Kenya:
No Kenyan Christmas would be complete without a roasted goat to feed the family, but the global credit crunch means some look set to miss out this festive season.

Orders for "Mbuzi ya Jamii" (goat for the family) are down sharply at Mama Mikes, an online store that allows Kenyans living abroad to pay for a range of products and services which are then delivered to their families back home.

These include goats, medical check-ups, supermarket shopping vouchers, school fees and others gifts.

"We have customers who are cancelling [orders] and most of them are saying that times are hard so they can't do it anymore," says Muthoni Machanga, the firm's finance and accounting manager.

The firm's customers typically spent between $60 and $100 per order three months ago, but this has now dropped to $45-60. Revenue has dropped by 30%.

Even the firm's loyal customers, who maintain monthly accounts for shopping vouchers and school fees payments have started cancelling or reducing their orders.

Ms Machanga says they are getting at least two cancellations a month and this is worrying for them, and also for the families in Kenya who rely on the remittances.

"It's putting families back home in Kenya under pressure at a time when they're already under pressure from very, very high inflation. One can sense these pressures occurring in the economy," says financial analyst Aly Khan Satchu.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Obama, Barack Obama?




Daniel Craig seems to have missed a few things:
The British action man ... likes both candidates. But, if he had to choose, he's adamant Obama would be a better Bond than ageing prisoner of war McCain.
He tells U.S. magazine Parade, "Obama would be the better Bond, because, if he's true to his word, he'd be willing to quite literally look the enemy in the eye and go toe-to-toe with them.
"But McCain wouldn't be left out of Craig's political Bond film - the actor insists the Republican would make a good M.
He explains, "McCain, because of his long service and experience, would probably be a better M. There is, come to think of it, a kind of Judi Dench quality to McCain."
Putting aside that it's Commander James Bond of the Royal Navy, and that Captain John McCain USN, actually did 'quite literally look the enemy in the eye and go toe-to-toe with them'.
That Ian Fleming deliberately chose a simple, dull name for his hero for the contrast it made with the exotic places and things Bond found himself among in the books.
And, that a constant of the Bond books was that he attracted beautiful women.

Europe on 5 Prayers a Day

Get thee to a nunnery! Now that we have the internet to facilitate it:
For centuries Europe's convents and monasteries have quietly provided inexpensive lodging to itinerants and in-the-know travelers, but now they're increasingly throwing open their iron-bound doors to overnight visitors. They've begun Web sites many with English translations and detailed information about sampling monastic life for a night and signed on with Internet booking services. Some have even added spa offerings. Occupancy has shot up at many places, and some of the more centrally located are often fully booked.

And while some of the people staying at such holy spots are among the 300,000 religious travelers fueling the booming $18 billion faith-tourism industry, others are simply ordinary vacationers seeking a more authentic alternative to an anonymous hotel.

....The tradition of religious houses offering lodging dates back to the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, the document laying out the ways of monastic life, which includes a chapter on extending hospitality. Over the ages monasteries have sheltered individual travelers and those seeking solace, as well as church groups on organized retreats.

But in recent decades, as farming and other sources of income have fallen off, religious orders have embraced the role of innkeeper.

The Bridgettine Sisters named for the 14th-century St. Bridget of Sweden operate guesthouses in 11 European countries (Italy, Britain, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Estonia, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway), not to mention Mexico and India and in Darien, Connecticut (A full list can be found at At Casa di Santa Brigida, in Rome, on lovely Piazza Farnese, prettily decorated rooms off marble halls have private baths, plus needle-pointed Madonnas over the single beds, and there's a common room with a flat-screen TV and a roof terrace. In between prayers, the nuns, whose black habits are topped by little crowns of crossed white bands, cheerfully issue room keys at the front desk and wait on tables at breakfast.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

For a more dangerous world...

Vote Democrat, says the Gaffemaster:
"Mark my words," Biden told donors at a Seattle fund-raiser Sunday night.

"It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America.

"Watch. We're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.

And, Madeleine Albright seconds the idea on CNN.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Isn't It Ironic

Jack Cashill--in his quest to determine just who did write Dreams From My Father--points to an unusual maritime metaphor:
If there is any one paragraph in Dreams that has convinced me of Ayers' involvement it is this one, in which Obama describes the black nationalist message:

"A steady attack on the white race . . . served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair."

As a writer, especially in the pre-Google era of Dreams, I would never have used a metaphor as specific as "ballast" unless I knew exactly what I was talking about. Seaman Ayers most surely did.

And a famous writer seems to agree:
That's what makes me so mad! I could just spit! I could I It's like being in a lunatic asylum and having another patient all dressed up as a doctor come over to you and start taking your pulse or something.... It's just awful. He talks and talks and talks. And if he isn't talking, he's smoking his smelly cigars all over the house. I'm so sick of the smell of cigar smoke I could just roll over and die."

"The cigars are ballast, sweetheart. Sheer ballast. If he didn't have a cigar to hold on to, his feet would leave the ground. We'd never see our Zooey again."

There were several experienced verbal stunt pilots in the Glass family, but this last little remark perhaps Zooey alone was coordinated well enough to bring in safely over a telephone. Or so this narrator suggests. And Franny may have felt so, too. In any case, she suddenly knew that it was Zooey at the other end of the phone. She got up, slowly, from the edge of the bed. "All right, Zooey," she said, "All right."

In the above from the Franny and Zooey stories, Zooey has called his little sister Franny, pretending to be their older brother, Buddy. When Zooey uses 'ballast' metaphorically Franny immediately realizes she's being victimized by an imposter.

Which is an interesting plot twist coming from the WWII G.I., J. D. Salinger who had participated in the Normandy landings, and would have been familiar with ballast from the troop ships he'd travelled on.