Thursday, January 31, 2008

Like...way cool

Eliminating the middle man in California:
LOS ANGELES - The city that popularized the fast food drive-thru has a new innovation: 24-hour medical marijuana vending machines.

...."Convenient access, lower prices, safety, anonymity," inventor and owner Vincent Mehdizadeh said, extolling the benefits of the machine.

But federal drug agents say the invention may need unplugging.

"Somebody owns (it), it's on a property and somebody fills it," said DEA Special Agent Jose Martinez. "Once we find out where it's at, we'll look into it and see if they're violating laws."

....Mehdizadeh says any user approved for medical marijuana and registered in a computer database at his dispensaries can pre-purchase the drug and then use the machine to pick up.

The process provides convenience and privacy for users who may otherwise feel uncomfortable about buying marijuana, Mehdizadeh said.

....A spokesman for a marijuana advocacy group said the machine also benefits dispensary owners.

"It limits the number of workers in the store in the event of a raid, and it'll make it harder for theft," said Nathan Sands, of The Compassionate Coalition.

Marijuana use is illegal under federal law, which does not recognize the medical marijuana laws in California and 11 other states.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Clouseau de grâce

This was supposed to be impossible:
The French paramilitary police force said Wednesday it is ditching Microsoft for the free Linux operating system, becoming one of the biggest administrations in the world to make the break.

The move completes the gendarmerie's severance from Microsoft which began in 2005 when it moved to open sourcing for office applications such as word processing. It switched to open source Internet browsers in 2006.

....The gendarmerie's 70,000 desktops currently use Microsoft's Windows XP operating system. But these will progressively change over to the Linux system distributed by Ubuntu, explained Colonel Nicolas Geraud, deputy director of the gendarmerie's IT department.

"We will introduce Linux every time we have to replace a desktop computer," he said, "so this year we expect to change 5,000-8,000 to Ubuntu and then 12,000-15,000 over the next four years so that every desktop uses the Linux operating system by 2013-2014."

According to Gary Reback, Paul David, Brian Arthur and the U.S. Dept of Justice antitrust division, they were locked in to Windows and Internet Explorer. Tom Hazlett's Gloat-o-meter goes off, ten years after:
Before he became Mother Teresa, Bill Gates was Darth Vader. As captain of the Evil Empire, he and his minions dominated PC operating systems, vanquishing all rivals. In May of 1998, the US Department of Justice struck back.

In the “antitrust case of the century,” the DoJ accused the Microsoft Corporation of monopolisation. The company was accused of destroying a rival in browserware – Netscape’s Navigator –- to suppress a competitive threat in operating systems – Sun’s Java. With Navigator’s browser becoming popular and ubiquitous, the Java script it embedded would, the DoJ predicted, provide an alternative platform for applications. This would deprive Microsoft’s Windows operating system of control over the computer; independent programmes could gain access simply by launching via Java. Soon Windows would be a trivial layer between valuable stacks of hardware and software applications. Fearing this, Microsoft sought to thwart Netscape and technological progress. So went the theory.

....we can now judge the government’s fundamental assertion in US v Microsoft. Did Microsoft’s tactics serve to protect a Windows monopoly that a targeted antitrust intervention could open to competition?

No. Whether one concludes that the court-imposed sanctions worked, or did not, the answer is the same. If the antitrust enforcers imposed precisely the right measures, Java has done nothing to dent the Windows franchise. If the sanctions were inept or poorly enforced, that is even more directly a failure of the theory that an anti-monopoly law can improve on the “but for” scenario.

But the decade has hardly been a bust for competition. It flourishes on margins unimagined by those who were professing to protect its path. Rivalry has come not from Java, but from a resurgent Apple and the open-source Linux. One is a vertically integrated firm with proprietary innovation; the other a geekdom of code-sharers seeking karma and human capital. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is coughing up market share to Mozilla, Netscape and Opera, browsers that ride comfortably on Windows.

But operating systems and browsers turned out to be a side show. The profits of the decade have been stolen by entrepreneurs who saw what was unfolding over a distant horizon. And then traversed that distance in a flash.

While the DoJ was filing against Microsoft, two youngsters at Stanford were crawling the web. With a search engine that could catalogue and rank the world’s web sites, matching key words while filtering out mish mash, their start-up quickly entered the language as a verb – a really popular verb. You can Google it.

Meanwhile, Apple has been making its own fortune under the shadow of the beast. It is crushing Microsoft in media players, finding its salvation in the holy i-trinity of Pod, Tunes and Phone. Domination of this digital consumer space was right there for the dreaming.

In 1998, operating systems and browsers looked to be the strategic high ground of cyberspace. He who dominated these tools would extract tolls, excluding rivals and squeezing customers. The reality was different. Incredible value was created in applications not then known and party occupying the old position of dominance proved ineffectual as a monopolist and an also-ran as a competitor.

APB on Maynard G. Krebs

Work...Work! Not in France:
The French government has decided to reinstate a holiday that had been scrapped in 2004, a minister said Tuesday, after the plan to create a new regular workday turned out to be too complicated to implement.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Getting What You Pay For

Unless you paid in taxes, and the Doctors don't want you to:
Doctors are calling for NHS treatment to be withheld from patients who are too old or who lead unhealthy lives.

Smokers, heavy drinkers, the obese and the elderly should be barred from receiving some operations, according to doctors, with most saying the health service cannot afford to provide free care to everyone.

Fertility treatment and "social" abortions are also on the list of procedures that many doctors say should not be funded by the state.

The findings of a survey conducted by Doctor magazine sparked a fierce row last night, with the British Medical Association and campaign groups describing the recommendations from family and hospital doctors as "out­rageous" and "disgraceful".

About one in 10 hospitals already deny some surgery to obese patients and smokers, with restrictions most common in hospitals battling debt.

They Are a Funny Race

Stand aside, Mr Lewis, there's a new Jerry in vogue:
Many in France, where suspicion of globalisation and financial markets runs deep, have found a new hero in a young man who subverted the system and allegedly lost his bank five billion euros.

For Societe Generale bank, trader Jerome Kerviel is a "crook, fraudster and terrorist" but for many here Kerviel is a scapegoat whose action has exposed what they see as the outrageous greed of global finance.

"He is the product of a system that pushes people into taking huge risks in the pursuit of huge profits," said 29-year-old office worker Marie Fournier.

"All he did was get carried away by that system and take it to extremes. He may well have done us all a service by reminding us what goes on," she said as she took a walk in central Paris during her lunchbreak.

....The French Communist Party went as far as comparing Kerviel to Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain whose dismissal more than a century ago on trumped-up charges of spying triggered a protracted national crisis.

Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Relations said Kerviel has become a hero for some because of "the feeling (in France) that the very rich are always getting their way and that relatively modest agents are used as scapegoats."

"But of course this is something you could expect in a country where part of the left and a large section of the population is still anti-globalisation and anti-capitalism," he told AFP.

.... Kerviel, a seemingly unremarkable young man who has now entered the annals of financial history, has also become a cyberspace star, with a burgeoning cult on the Facebook social networking site and numerous websites dedicated to him.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Britney Boosts Bottom...


The economics of celebrity misbehavior:
"The product for the tabloid industry is the unusual, and Britney has been delivering that consistently," said Dan Smith, dean of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.

At a time when advertising spending in traditional media is declining, celebrity gossip titles such as Star, Us Weekly and In Touch Weekly are growing. That helped overall newsstand sales for magazines edge 1 percent higher, to $2.39 billion, in the first half of 2007.

"The increase is almost entirely attributable to the growth of the celebrity magazine," said John Harrington, who runs industry consulting agency Harrington Associates.

Any time a magazine can boost newsstand sales past its average, the revenue is booked nearly entirely as profit, Harrington said: "People prints 2.5 million copies and sells about an average of 1.5 million. If they have an issue that sells 2 million, the extra half million goes to the bottom line."

...."An editor's dream is to have a real life soap opera unraveling in front of you, and Britney provides that every week," said Sarah Ivens, OK!'s U.S. editor. The magazine has a 10-person team in Los Angeles devoted to Spears coverage. "We're on constant Britney alert."

She wouldn't disclose the costs to the magazine, saying only that Spears has been "amazing" for OK!'s business. Publisher Tom Morrisy said Spears drives newsstand sales and helped the magazine's ad revenue more than double to $51 million in 2007. OK! expects to turn a profit in 2008, three years after breaking into the market.

US Weekly has been just as enamored of the star, putting Spears on nearly two-thirds of its covers last year, including each of the last 14. People has had Spears on the cover 10 times in the past 15 months.

And that heightened demand for Spears pictures has been a boon to photographers.

X17's Navarre said an exclusive shot of the star would sell for about $10,000 in the U.S. and generate thousands more in residuals. "She's the most expensive right now," he said. "For Angelina, for example, you divide by two or even three to get the price."

In contrast, the average celebrity shot fetches $125 to $700, according to Scott Mc Kiernan, founder of ZUMA Press photo agency. He said residual fees on exclusives can push the value of a unique Spears shot well past $100,000.

Many of those images wind up on celebrity gossip Web sites, like TMZ and PerezHilton. The sites make money by delivering viewers to ads on their pages, typically receiving a fee for each 1,000 hits. Navarre said Spears boosts traffic to his Web site,, more than any other star.

"During the ambulance incident, traffic doubled every hour," he said, citing internal server data.

X17, which owns the infamous picture of a bald Spears taken in February, has a team of photographers tracking her at all times. "For us, she's the star No. 1," Navarre said.

Supply Side Economist

Greg Mankiw explaining why he took his name out of the running to head the NBER:
With the Bush tax cuts set to expire in a couple years, I am looking for ways to reduce my taxable income.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Here's looking at you, Rick

About UCLA's new head football coach; the Seattle Times relives those thrilling days of yesteryear:
[Washington] Husky faithful look back wistfully to their last great team: the 2000 squad, winners of the Rose Bowl, owners of an 11-1 record, ranked No. 3 in the nation.

....What happened on the field in 2000 may have been magical. But what happened off it was not.
An unprecedented look behind the scenes — based largely on documents unavailable at the time — reveals a disturbing level of criminal conduct and hooliganism by the players on that team.

Former coach Rick Neuheisel and athletic director Barbara Hedges accepted most of it, demanding little discipline or accountability from their athletes. And other community institutions, including prosecutors, police, judges and the media, went along.

....When that Rose Bowl season began on Sept. 2, 2000, against the University of Idaho, the UW's starters included:

• A safety who, according to police reports, had cut his wife's face, broken her arm and broken her nose. He had already served time for choking her into unconsciousness. While playing in front of 70,000 fans on Montlake that day, he was wanted on an outstanding warrant.

• A linebacker under investigation for robbing and shooting a drug dealer. He had left behind a fingerprint stained with his blood. By the season opener, police knew the print was his — but they didn't charge him until the season was over.

• A tight end under investigation on suspicion of rape.

At least a dozen members of the Rose Bowl team were arrested that year or charged with a crime that carried possible jail time. At least a dozen others on that team got in trouble with the law in other seasons.

....When a star player made headlines for crashing his pickup into a retirement home and fleeing, Neuheisel suspended him — for half a game.

....[When] UCLA hired Neuheisel to be its head coach. UCLA's athletic director, Dan Guerrero, said the school was concerned about Neuheisel's history of NCAA violations but figured that was in his past. More relevant was Neuheisel's 66-30 record.

"In the end," Guerrero said, "it was all about 66 collegiate wins."

Friday, January 25, 2008

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

Hope you guess my name
But what's confusing you
Is just the nature of my game
I'm the man who broke the bank:
On the elite trading floors here, where France's brightest minds devise some of the most complex instruments in global finance, few people noticed Jérôme Kerviel.
He was lucky to be there at all. Many of his colleagues had been plucked from the prestigious Grandes Écoles - the Harvards and MITs of France - and wielded advanced degrees in math or engineering. Kerviel arrived from business school and started out shuffling paper in the back office.
But on Thursday the world came to know Kerviel, 31, as the suspected most dangerous rogue trader ever, a young gambler who found himself sucked into a spiral of losses that left a $7.2 billion hole in Société Générale, one of France's largest and most respected banks with operations throughout the world....
"There are plenty of excellent brains at Société Générale, consequently I find it hard to believe the risk management systems and all the auditors did not indicate anything at any level," said Helyette Geman, a professor of mathematical finance at Essec, a leading French business school, as well as a professor at the University of London.
It is a remarkable turn of events for Société Générale, which since the mid-1980s has built itself into a global powerhouse in trading derivatives like futures and options.
"In France we considered Société Générale a magic bank," Geman said.
....But Kerviel, described by bank executives as a shy junior trader, did not fit the mold at Société Générale. The bank lures its top talent from country's premier science and engineering schools in Paris.
Kerviel grew up in Brittany, in western France, and attended the University of Lyon. He joined Société Générale in 2000 as, in effect, a clerk - processing and recording the trades made on the trading floor.
By 2006, Kerviel had worked his way up to the trading floor, where he specialized in arbitrage, or making bets on small differences between various European stock market indexes like the CAC, in France, and DAX, in Germany.
A senior banker at Société Générale described Kerviel "as a very junior trader, not a star." As far as his superiors knew, this banker said, "he was starting to work on a small portfolio. He's more of a shy person than an extrovert."

Beary Interesting

Native to Iran, enlisted in the Polish army, retired to Scotland:
A campaign has been launched to build a permanent memorial to a bear which spent much of its life in Scotland - after fighting in World War II.

....Voytek - known as the Soldier Bear - later lived near Hutton in the Borders and ended his days at Edinburgh Zoo.

He was found wandering in the hills of Iran by Polish soldiers in 1943.

They adopted him and as he grew he was trained to carry heavy mortar rounds.

When Polish forces were deployed to Europe the only way to take the bear with them was to "enlist" him.

So he was given a name, rank and number and took part in the Italian campaign.

He saw action at Monte Cassino before being billeted - along with about 3,000 other Polish troops - at the army camp in the Scottish Borders.

The soldiers who were stationed with him say that he was easy to get along with.

"He was just like a dog - nobody was scared of him," said Polish veteran Augustyn Karolewski, who still lives near the site of the camp.

"He liked a cigarette, he liked a bottle of beer - he drank a bottle of beer like any man."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Plus ça change

If Sarko can change wives almost overnight, why not France:
President Nicolas Sarkozy gave the nod Wednesday to a 300-point free-market reform plan commissioned to "unleash" French growth, but vetoed several flagship measures to quell a mini-rebellion in the ruling party ranks.

....The... final report, entitled "300 proposals to change France," proposes a raft of sweeping changes, from job market deregulation to local government reform, life-long training, boosting Internet access, investing in green technologies or opening up French borders to immigration.

....Sarkozy said he was "essentially in agreement" with the commission's findings, although he stopped short of saying he would adopt them wholesale.

"Some may find your proposals frightening, I find them basically quite reasonable... Our country needs an intensive course of modernisation,"

"In a world that is changing at high speed, France has fallen behind despite its exceptional assets," he said. "By seeking to regulate everything in the smallest details, we have created a straight-jacket that prevents growth."

....As French voters fret about the cost of living, sluggish growth and the knock-on effect of the US economic slowdown, Sarkozy faces mounting pressure to deliver on his election promise to kickstart the economy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Why We Love These Guys

The bundled team of Liebowitz-Margolis has a near monopoly on drollery in econ papers. The latest example being:
When McDonald's sells a hamburger and french fries and a toy together in a happy meal, it has created a bundle made of separate products. McDonald’s practices mixed bundling, however, meaning that you can also buy the food items separately. No one seems to object to the bundle (except for some nanny-wannabes who object to any combination of food sold by McDonald’s).

Your ordinary restaurant, however, is not likely to be so accommodating. There you may order a dish that comes with a vegetable, a starch, and a salad. Although some restaurants have been known to allow users to mix onion rings with french fries, you most often will not be allowed to put a plate together from various sides unless you offer extra money on the side. Sometimes you may not be allowed any mixing and matching of various dishes, as the Jack Nicholson character found out in the famous diner scene from the movie Five Easy Pieces. As the Nicholson character demonstrated, however, bundling can make consumers angry about the loss of choice that would otherwise be available in a-la-carte. Fortunately he did not go to the antitrust authorities to for help, but instead proposed a novel form of unbundling in order to obtain a plain omelet with wheat toast. Unfortunately, the transactions costs turned out to be prohibitive.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

No puede poner...

...el vino nuevo en viejas botellas. Not if the Spanish winemakers have anything to say about it:
The Environment Ministry has demanded that 50 percent of wine bottles are re-used, an idea that has angered the wine industry.

The Spanish wine federation argues that its products will be adversely affected by putting them into old bottles.

"In environmental terms this is a disproportionate measure that will do more harm than good," says the federation. It goes on to argue that the government is trying to persuade the sector "to sell wine to restaurants in reusable bottles that will be filled several times."

.... Indeed, this Spanish government plan to recycle wine bottles threatens the future of 3,500 small wineries, which will struggle to adapt to the new requirements.

Spain's powerful wine industry, which has already managed to halt the government's anti-alcohol legislation, considers that the use of non-reusable glass is necessary "given the qualities of this material, and for the conservation of the product, and its presentation to the consumer," adding that it is also "essential to the preparation of the wine."

May not know much about art...

Nor about much of anything:
PORTLAND [OR]— Police have arrested a security guard and her boyfriend in connection with the theft of two large sculptures that were taken last month from the estate of Jean Vollum, the late philanthropist and art patron.

The pair allegedly cut up and sold the sculptures — worth an estimated $30,000 — for $70 to $100 cash from scrap metal recyclers.

Employees at recycling companies became suspicious and contacted police. Police arrested 36-year-old Kathryn Loundree and 33-year-old Rodney Remmick last week after discovering pieces of two sculptures in and around the trailer the couple shared.

Multnomah County Sheriff's officials said parts of the sculptures — an untitled welded metal piece made in 1970 by artist Tom Hardy and a 1967 cast bronze titled "Mother and Child" by the late Frederic Littman — were stolen Dec. 20.

Loundree had been hired to protect the property as an employee of Portland-based Harbor Security. Harbor Security officials said they were cooperating fully with the investigation.

Two other sculptures on the property — another by Hardy and a piece by the late Hilda Morris — were recovered the next day on the Vollum estate, moved from their original locations.


His 15 minutes are up:

Two months ago, the physics world was buzzing with the news of a new Einstein.

Garrett Lisi, an unemployed physicist with no university affiliation who spent his time surfing in Hawaii, had come up with the Holy Grail of science: a theory unifying quantum physics and Einstein's theory of relativity.

....The title of Lisi's paper - An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything - does not describe how easy his theory is, but refers to his use of one of the [building blocks of symmetry]...called E8, as the key to his idea to unify quantum physics and relativity into a theory.

E8 can be thought of as the symmetries of a huge snowflake living in 248-dimensional space. Lisi believed that inside this he could bind the symmetries of the quantum world and relativity.

Unfortunately, the consensus, after investigation, is that it is impossible to use E8 in the way Lisi was hoping and produce a consistent model that reflects reality. Lisi has been riding a wave - but it is time to knock him off his board and recognise that we are still waiting for the next Einstein to span the gap between the symmetries of the very small and the very big.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Elephant in the Sauna

When forest clearing elephants are outlawed, only outlaws employ elephants:
Of all the illegal activities that animate the streets of Bangkok — the vendors who hawk pirated DVDs and fake watches, the brothels that call themselves saunas — one stands out more than others.

Elephants are not supposed to saunter down the city’s streets as they do almost every night. For at least two decades the giant gray beasts have plodded through this giant gray city, stopping off at red-light districts and tourist areas where their handlers peddle elephant snacks of sugar cane and bananas to passers-by.

Occasionally the elephants knock off the side-view mirrors from cars or stumble into gutters and cut themselves on sharp objects.

The police shrug, politicians periodically order crackdowns and animal lovers despair.

The police shrug for sound reasons:
“To be honest, nobody wants to do this job, nobody wants to deal with the elephants,” said Prayote Promsuwon, who is in charge of the Stray Elephant Task Force, which was formed after an elephant handler, fleeing the police, raced his elephant the wrong way down a large Bangkok boulevard, causing traffic chaos.

The police shy away from detaining the elephants’ handlers, also known as mahouts, because the officers fear they will not be able to control the animals on their own.

“This is a dangerous job,” Mr. Prayote said. “An angry elephant can destroy cars and make trouble — and then we have responsibility for the damage.”

And, as always, the incentives matter:
“We’ve been fined many times,” said Nattawut Inthong, a 24-year-old mahout who travels around Bangkok with his 2-year-old elephant, Gra-po.

Mr. Nattawut treats the fine of 300 baht, about $10, like a business expense: he pays it and moves on. Most evenings he parades Gra-po through the Nana red-light district, a warren of go-go bars in Bangkok’s bustling Sukhumvit neighborhood. The elephant adds to the carnival-like atmosphere created by thumping music, hawkers dressed in hill-tribe costumes and bar girls twirling around poles in bathing suits.

Mr. Nattawut makes about 2,000 baht a day, or about $67, selling sugar cane to passers-by, good money in a country where a typical factory wage is 8,000 baht (about $269) a month.

Especially since other employment has been closed off:
Before motor vehicles took over, elephants were the taxis of the rich and the workhorses of rural Thailand, especially prized for their help in clearing thick swaths of jungle. It was not until the late 1980s, when the government banned logging to save the nation’s dwindling forests, that hundreds of elephants found themselves unemployed.

Some elephants were given jobs in the tourism industry, carrying jungle trekkers and amusing visitors with their ability to paint or even play in an “elephant orchestra.” For others, the unemployment line led to Bangkok.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Get the lead out?

The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!
How's this for innovation: $14,000 for a fully loaded, midsize sport utility vehicle with a leather interior.

The catch: It's made in China.

...."There are a number of very aggressive car companies in China," said John Parker, a Ford vice president who works closely with a Chinese carmaker through a joint-operating agreement. "Their cars are progressively getting better. I think it will be a very significant industry in terms of size and scale."

Probably coming to U.S. roads soonest are cars from China America Cooperative Automotive, a U.S. company with an exclusive contract to sell 600,000 pickups and SUVs, including the $14,000 model, over five years.

Chamco Chairman William Pollack says the cars will go on sale at the end of this year or early 2009 in nine states, including California.

....Several other Chinese companies say they aren't far behind. Hunan Changfeng Motor Co. says it will sell SUVs in the U.S. next year. Chrysler signed a deal with Chinese company Chery last month to make economy cars it would badge as Dodges and sell in the U.S. starting in 2009.

BYD, a Shenzhen company, says it could market sedans, including a plug-in hybrid, in the U.S. in three to five years.

Meanwhile, China's largest automaker, Geely Group, said this week it will build a plant in Mexico.

Like most products from China, the central marketing approach will be affordability. It's the same road taken by Korean carmakers Hyundai and Kia in the past two decades, and, further back, Japan's Toyota and Honda. Yet with models that have retracting hardtops, anti-lock brakes and heated seats, the Chinese say they're not hawking econo-boxes, despite prices that almost never break $20,000.

Here's looking at you, clone

The New York Giants got a little help from an imaginary friend:
Jessica Simpson? No, but close. Very close.

Lynsey Nordstrom is a 21-year-old nanny from Bothell [WA] who looks like the pop singer and paparazzi target. She's so similar, in fact, the New York Post flew Nordstrom to Dallas for last Sunday's NFC playoff game with the Giants to pose as Simpson as a prank.

....Simpson is dating [Tony] Romo, the Cowboys' quarterback. She attended a Dallas game earlier this season, wearing his No. 9 jersey. The Cowboys lost. Yoko Ono comparisons followed, and Simpson stayed away from the playoff game against the Giants.

But her look-alike was there. The Post put Nordstrom in a Romo jersey and sat her three rows up from the Cowboys' bench.

And Dallas lost again, putting the Giants in the NFC Championship Game — and earning Nordstrom some notoriety.

She flew to Dallas on Saturday, watched the game Sunday and returned Monday to work a shift as a nanny. She headed to New York that night on a red-eye flight. She has appeared on the cover of the Post, and created such a buzz she was told Donald Trump called the tabloid to ask about meeting her.

Nordstrom isn't related to the famous retail family. Having the same name doesn't even earn her a discount. But looking like Simpson does pay. She won't disclose her appearance fees, but it's enough that she's going to make a go at this look-alike business. The family she works for will have to find a new nanny.

....Nordstrom has agents in New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood. She was photographed for a wine ad that appeared around Mexico City. And she's part of a group of look-alikes that book themselves out as Ocean's 6. The group includes a Johnny Depp, an Angelina Jolie, a Paris Hilton and a Jennifer Aniston.

Do not drive nakedly into the good night

Especially if you've been drinking wine in Washington state:
A Seattle driver who was arrested by the Washington State Patrol last summer in unusual circumstances — both he and his passenger were naked — has ended up paying a price for his passion.

....In that episode, a state trooper stopped a sport-utility vehicle about 1:20 a.m. on Interstate 90 in Bellevue after he noticed the vehicle drifting across traffic lanes. When the trooper approached the couple inside, he found they both were naked and trying to stash an empty wine bottle.

The driver was charged with driving under the influence and reckless driving.

[Jan Peter] Pawluskiewicz pleaded guilty to reduced charges of first- and second-degree negligent driving.

King County District Court Judge Linda Jacke ordered 24 months of probation; a 90-day jail term, which was suspended; attendance at a DUI victims' panel; and fines that totaled $1,718.

His family presented documentation showing that his SUV has been donated to a charity.

And, Jacke was told, the young man's girlfriend has left him.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A very fine bird is...

The Ostrich, if you're a struggling Japanese construction company:
Yasuo Nakazato is president of construction firm Nakazato Kogyo, which manages Shirotori Dacho Mura (White bird Ostrich Village) in Murayama, Yamagata Prefecture. He got interested in the world's largest living birds, which originate in Africa, five years ago when his company was in a slump amid a sudden drop in public works projects.

The Japan Ostrich Council, based in Tokyo, says ostriches are being raised in more than 450 locations across the country from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Nearly 70 percent of breeders are connected to the construction industry and are rearing the flightless birds as a side business.

Hiroaki Toyohara, secretary general of the council, said, "There are many instances of construction companies taking up the challenge of breeding ostriches to supplement their main business because of the reduction in public works projects due to the financial difficulties confronting the central and local governments."

He said construction companies find it easy to start breeding ostriches because they already have building materials such as metal pipes to set up cages.

....Nakazato started by raising 10 young birds through a process of trial and error, feeding them rice crackers and vegetables. He now has 35 ostriches.

"Ostriches are tame, hardy with regard to changes in climate and easy to raise," he said. "They hate to be alone and never try to run away."

More than 200 people visited the ostrich village on weekends last July and August. Ice cream made from ostrich eggs and salami made from ostrich meat are specialties of the village and are sold at events both within and outside of Yamagata Prefecture. Also on sale are billfolds made of ostrich leather.

The town of Asahi, Yamagata Prefecture, has offered to let a local construction company use the former site of a high school for grazing land free of charge. The town plans to pitch meat from ostriches fed on apples in the hope that it will help to revive the area.

Bienvenue au 20th siècle

A journey of a thousand miles must start with a single step:
Pharmacies in France will soon be allowed to stock many medicines in front of the counter in an effort to ensure competition keeps down prices....

French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said in an interview in Le Parisien that by the second half of this year that pharmacies would be allowed to stock on shelves accessible to customers many medicines no longer reimbursed by the French state health insurance system.

....The change, which is quite radical for French pharmacies in which pharmacists dispense even non-prescription medicines, has been driven in part by price rises as contracts with the French health insurance agency no longer keep prices down on many treatments.

"When a product is sold in front of the counter you can compare prices more easily," said Bachelot.

.... Cough medicine, skin treatments and many gastroenterological medicationsare initially covered under the initiative, but as many as 3,000 drugs could eventually find their way in front of pharmacists' counters.

Though, they still have a ways to go:

In an interview on RMC radio on Tuesday Bachelot said she opposed allowing sale of medicines in supermarkets, saying it is "a question of public health and consumer protection."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Then they came for the chocolate

Our old friends, the Chinese and bio-fuels, strike again:
Chocolate and bonbons will become much more expensive in the coming year and quality could become poorer, according to insiders in the chocolate market in Belgium and Switzerland, the leading chocolate producers in Europe.

The reasons behind this are the increasing demand from China and the poorer cocoa quality because of unrest in the largest production country, Ivory Coast. The cocoa plantations in Malaysia have largely been replaced by more lucrative palm oil plantations for bio-fuel.

Top Belgian chocolatier Galler announced a 10-percent increase in prices on Tuesday. "In the long term we are heading for scarcity and even higher prices," Justine Galler said in Het Laatste Nieuws.

We all scream...

In France the ice cream makers don't really get the concept of business:
French police stormed an ice cream factory on Tuesday to free a British manager who had been held hostage by workers angry over job cuts, officials said.

Paramedics reported 14 workers injured in the police operation to free Prakash Patel, who had been held captive in his office for one night after more than 250 redundancies were announced at the factory owned by the Anglo-Dutch food giant Unilever.

Patel was said to be unharmed. But tensions remained high with some workers burning tyres and wooden pallets in front of the factory gates even after the police raid.

.... "We were really scared. I was shocked. They were charging people like me who are 57 years old," said Alain Didelot, a union official at the factory which has been making ice cream cones for 33 years.

.... "I regret what happened during the night, which was really a useless offence which shows an irresponsible attitude. But I want a real social dialogue," said Daniel Degove, chairman of Cogesal-Miko. He would not say if the company planned to press charges against the workers.

Unilever France said it would meet workers to discuss the planned changes at the plant.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fly by Day Doctor

Work by Scotland's National Health Service:
Dr [Piotr] Robinski flies to Scotland every other weekend to work for the NHS in Aberdeen. He says he is only doing the same as most of his contemporaries.

"Doctors in the UK usually only work in one work... doctors in Poland work in more than one work so it is completely normal for me to take another job somewhere else. If I [didn't] go to Scotland, I would find [a] second job here in Poland."

Shift shortages

Doctors in former Eastern Bloc countries, such as Poland, can expect to earn less than the average wage, which is around £300 a month. Dr Robinski can earn the same amount in one shift in the UK.

What's more, shifts in the evenings and at weekends need filling. In 2004, 90% of GPs' surgeries opted out of providing out-of-hours care, so health trusts had to begin employing agencies to fill the shifts.

....By the end of his shift, Dr Robinski will have been on the go for around 19 hours, but he says he's not too tired to work.

"My journey takes around 12 hours, sometimes less, and when I get to Aberdeen I take only a few hours of work.. then I go to bed and when I wake up in the morning I am not tired."

A Little Oenology

Can be a dangerous thing for your wallet:
Antonio Rangel and colleagues at California Institute of Technology thought the perception that higher price means higher quality could influence people, so they decided to test the idea.

They asked 20 people to sample wine while undergoing functional MRIs of their brain activity.
The subjects were told they were tasting five different cabernet sauvignons sold at different prices.

However, there were actually only three wines sampled, two being offered twice, marked with different prices.

A $90 wine was provided marked with its real price and again marked $10, while another was presented at its real price of $5 and also marked $45.

The testers' brains showed more pleasure at the higher price than the lower one, even for the same wine, Rangel reports in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In other words, changes in the price of the wine changed the actual pleasure experienced by the drinkers, the researchers reported.

On the other hand, when tasters didn't know any price comparisons, they rated the $5 wine as better than any of the others sampled.

"We were shocked," Rangel said in a telephone interview. "I think it was because the flavor was stronger and our subjects were not very experienced."

He added that wine professionals would probably be able to differentiate the better wine — "one would hope."

Monday, January 14, 2008

Greener Grass

Paul Krugman's Europeans are restless:
About one in twenty Dutch people are considering moving abroad within the coming five years, this is more or less in line with figures in other European countries.

This has emerged from a study by the Organisation for Strategic Labour Market Research (OSA) at the University of Tilburg. Just as in other European countries, the willingness of the Dutch to move abroad is greatest among students, average among the highly educated, and lower among those with a low level of education.

Significantly more residents of new EU member states have plans to move. Especially many Poles, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians say they plan to leave their homelands within five years. The percentage in these countries is 10 percent or more.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Lebensraum 2008

Belgium has that old shrinking feeling:
Officials in eastern Belgium fear losing part of their territory to neighbouring Germany due to the dismantling of a disused railway line running along the border of the two countries, local Belgian daily Le Jour Verviers reported Wednesday.

Parts of the railway line, shut down since 2001, cross through Germany.

When the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 mapped a new German-Belgian border after World War I, it allocated the railway's immediate surroundings, including stations, to the Kingdom of Belgium, thus creating five Belgian enclaves in German territory.

But local officials now fear that since the railway line is being dismantled, Belgium may have to return several square kilometres of its territory to its neighbour.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Aussies can vote for the word of the year:
Are you suffering from password fatigue? Ever considered manscaping? Do you know any tanorexics?

These phrases and more are contenders in an online vote organised by Australia's Macquarie Dictionary to select the Word of the Year 2007.

Seventeen categories contain a total of 85 words from which voters can choose.

Options include globesity - the problem of rising obesity around the globe - and floordrobe - the use of the floor as a substitute wardrobe.

....Salad dodger is included as a term for an overweight person, while a surfer under the age of 10 can now be called a microgrom.

....Chindia is used as a noun to refer to China and India as a collective unit, in terms of economic power and strategic importance.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Wen Buttons?

China is going to whip inflation now...they say:
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao responded Wednesday to growing public anxiety about inflation by announcing that China would freeze energy prices in the near term, even as international crude oil futures have topped $100 a barrel.

....The freezes, announced on the government's main Web site, followed a meeting of the State Council, led by Wen on Wednesday, to revise policies on price controls. Prices of oil products, natural gas and electricity will be frozen in the near term. Rates for public water bills also will be frozen, as will the cost of public transportation tickets.

The edict also called for stabilizing prices on medical services and for certain agricultural fertilizers. It ordered local governments to closely monitor prices and warned that punishments would be strengthened for those who violate government price control policies.

....For ordinary Chinese citizens, inflation has emerged as a major concern. Last year, food prices rose roughly 12 percent, eliciting an often angry public response. More recently, prices for eggs and pork have fallen, though flooding in farming regions of central China damaged vegetable production and kept those prices high, Simpfendorfer said.

Last week, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a national survey that found 30.5 percent of respondents considered inflation the country's top problem. Stories about the urban poor struggling with rising prices have become common in the Chinese media.

Take Heart

From this new medical study:
A major study from Denmark shows people who drink in moderation can cut their risk of dying more than those who abstain.

People who neither drink nor exercise had a risk of heart disease almost 50 per cent higher than those who either drank, exercised or did both.

The study, published in the European Heart Journal, followed 11,914 Danish men and women over a period of around 20 years taking part in the Copenhagen City Heart Study.

....The study found non-drinkers were almost a third more likely to die from heart disease compared with people drinking moderately - up to two drinks a day. The risk remained no matter how much exercise was taken by abstainers.

....Heavy drinkers drank 15 or more drinks each week and fared as badly as non-drinkers, said the researchers.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

That strips the conscience bare

It's Witchcraft:
The threat of witchcraft has scared looters into returning goods they stole during unrest which followed last month's disputed Kenyan elections.

TV stations broadcast pictures of people returning to places they robbed in the coastal city of Mombasa carrying beds, sofas and other items.

A police commander confirmed the reports and said the rumours of witchcraft had made his job "easy".

....word spread around Mombasa that a timber merchant had brought in a community elder to place a curse on the thieves.

"He gave us 10 days to return the timber. I will return them at night because people really laugh at us when we do so during the day," an unidentified man told the TV station.

Other victims of looters have also reportedly followed suit.

John Joash confessed to stealing a bed during the mayhem.

"I am fearful for my life because of the ghosts, that is why I decided to return the property," the AFP news agency quotes him as saying.

Less Coffee?

Superbarista to the rescue?
Howard Schultz, Starbucks' chairman and the man responsible for turning it into the world's largest coffee-shop chain, returned as chief executive on Monday and laid out plans for a turnaround.

....Schultz, 54, has not been Starbucks' CEO since 2000, when it had 3,500 stores. Now it has more than 15,000 locations in 43 countries — and competitive threats from such chains as McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts.

Many investors say rapid growth is to blame for Starbucks' foundering financial performance and stock price during the last couple years, and Schultz agreed. He said he also wants to revive innovation and create a stronger bond with customers.

....Schultz said Starbucks will slow its growth and close some stores in the U.S., and accelerate growth in other countries where new stores will be more profitable.

....Starbucks stock shot up after the announcement, which followed the close of regular trading. After climbing 27 cents to $18.38 in regular trading, it leapt $1.65 to $20.03 in after-hours trading.

The research firm Morningstar figures the stock is worth $36. It has traded between $18 and $36.61 over the past year.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Yugo, Guys

India readies the latest in deathtrap technology:
...the $2,500 car, scheduled for introduction Thursday by the Indian company Tata, swims against the current, with a rear-mounted engine, a trunk that fits little more than a briefcase, and plastics and adhesives replacing metal and bolts in certain nooks.

....Yet it is unclear whether the Tata car itself, so small and wispy and lacking the most cutting-edge emissions and safety technologies, will ever drive a Western road - or whether it can sell briskly enough at home to reap a profit.

The "People's Car," so called in homage to Volkswagen's Beetle and Ford's Model T, is a carefully guarded secret. The company refuses to provide details of how it was built, and it has signed legal agreements with suppliers not to divulge details. ....

The handful of people who have seen the car describe a tiny, charming, four-door, five-seat hatchback shaped like a jellybean, tiny in the front and broad in the back, the better to reduce wind resistance and permit a cheaper engine.

....Driving the cost-cutting were Tata's engineers, who in an earlier project questioned whether their trucks really needed all four brake pads or could make do with three. As they built the People's Car, for about half the price of the next-cheapest Indian alternative, their guiding philosophy appears to have been one question: Do we really need that?

The model appearing Thursday has no radio, no power steering, no power windows, no air conditioning, and one windshield wiper instead of two, according to suppliers and Tata's own statements.

Bucking prevailing habits, the car lacks a tachometer and uses an analog rather than digital speedometer, according to Ashok Taneja, who until recently was president of the Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India, representing many of Tata's suppliers as they signed deals with the company.

"So what if I'm going at 65 or 75?" Taneja said, referring to the use of a less precise speedometer.

....Critics of the Tata car have asked how a car that prunes thousands of dollars from regular prices can comply with safety and environmental norms. The answer may be that it comes at a fortuitous moment in India's developmental arc, when India is affluent enough to support vigorous demand for cars but not yet so affluent as to have enacted the regulations common to wealthy countries. Tata executives say the car will comply with all Indian norms.

....In a recent interview, Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Group, also suggested that the car's lightness, while favorable for the environment, had frustrated efforts to make it safe. "We will have far lower emissions than today's low-end cars," he said. But, he added, "The emissions standards were much easier to meet than the crash test."

The Girlfriend Can't Help It

Sarko's popularity, it seems:
Did he really give her a pink, diamond, heart-shaped engagement ring in Egypt? Has he really set 9 February as the date?

It is almost as if they were talking about a pop star or a French footballer, but the man in question is no ordinary celebrity - he is the president of France.

He might view his relationship with singer and former model Carla Bruni as a Disney-style whirlwind romance, but many French people increasingly see it as impulsive, flashy, vulgar and most importantly, distracting.

"We didn't elect a rock star" snaps the regional paper Nice Matin, in response to more glossy photographs of the jean-clad president and his girlfriend in Jordan.

The Alsace agrees: "We don't need this glitz - we need him to give us economic results", it admonishes.

An opinion poll in the newspaper Le Parisien suggests the president has suffered a seven-point drop in his approval ratings - only 48% of French people now say they have confidence in their leader, giving him his lowest score since his election last May.

....Even right-leaning papers like Le Figaro, which is generally supportive of the president, has written waspish comments, complaining that "while a barrel of petrol flirts with the hundred dollar mark so Nicolas Sarkozy flirts with Carla Bruni".

Friday, January 04, 2008

Button Up Our Overcoat

And be a walking advertisement for me:
A cafe owner in the western city of Rennes has found a friendly way of enforcing France's new smoking ban: he is lending customers fleece jackets to wear while they stand outside to smoke.

"To say to a customer 'go and smoke your cigarette outside' is a bit harsh. Lending him a fleece to wear is friendlier," said Gilles Berard, owner of the Chat Qui Peche cafe in central Rennes.

Cafes, restaurants and nightclubs across France became smoke-free as ofJanuary 1 when a nationwide ban on smoking went into effect.

Berard has bought 30 sleeveless fleeces emblazoned with the name of his cafe, using the smoking ban to wage some savvy marketing.

Some clients have complained however, saying the jackets should have sleeves or hoods, said Berard.

Piping Up

France's taxpayers might get to pay the non-piper:
A hookah-pipe bar owner in eastern Franceis suing the state for damages, claiming the country's new smoking ban has put it out of business, its lawyer said Thursday.

The "Sphinx", set up three years ago in the eastern city of Metz, closeddown on January 1 when a nationwide ban on smoking came into effect in tens of thousands of cafes, restaurants and nightclubs.

It is demanding 60,000 euros (90,000 dollars) in damages, under a French law allowing compensation for individuals who suffer a prejudice as a result of policies designed for the public interest.

"My client, whose entire establishment was a smoking room, was forced toclose down to respect a decree taken in the name of public health," said its lawyer, Xavier Iochum.

Like many of France's estimated 800 hookah-pipe bars, the "Sphinx" offered Oriental-style water pipes and tea, but no alcohol -- with tobacco sales providing its core source of income.

Owner Bayoumi El Sayad, a construction worker of Egyptian origin, claims to have sunk his life savings into the bar.

....Iochum claims there is legal precedent for compensation, that could applyto all water-pipe bars that opened before the anti-smoking decree was passedin 2006.

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

China--handed to Mao Tse Tung by our Communist penetrated State Department in the 1940s--issues another edict:
Chinese web surfers could soon be restricted from accessing video internet sites like YouTube after the government has said they are cracking down on the 'broadcast of degenerate thinking'.

China has decided to restrict the broadcasting of internet videos to sites run by state-controlled companies and will require providers to report questionable content to the government.

....Under the new policy, websites that provide videos or allow users to upload video must obtain government permits and applicants must be either state-owned or state-controlled companies.

....The policy will ban providers from broadcasting video that involves national secrets, hurts the reputation of China, disrupts social stability or promotes pornography.

Providers will be required to delete and report such content.

The rules state: "Those who provide internet video services should insist on serving the people, serve socialism and abide by the moral code of socialism."

National Death Service

Britain's NHS does it again:
Two mothers have died from an identical infection after giving birth at the same hospital on the same day. An expert said it was "extremely unlikely" that their deaths were not linked.

Amy Kimmance, 39, and Jasmine Pickett, 29, had their babies at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester on December 21.

Within 72 hours they had both died from complications linked to streptococcus A infection - known as Strep A - which normally causes sore throats.

Winchester and Eastleigh Healthcare NHS Trust insisted investigations so far showed their deaths were coincidental.

....The deaths raised fresh concern over hygiene and infection control practices in Health Service hospitals.

Not Seeing the Light

What's green, and can make you red all over?
Using environmentally friendly light bulbs can be seriously bad for your skin, doctors warn.

New energy-saving bulbs produce a more intense light which can cause eruptions of existing skin problems, like eczema, and even lead to skin cancer, they claim.

The revelation comes after health experts warned the fluorescent bulbs, which are to become compulsory in homes within four years, could trigger migraines and cause dizziness and discomfort to people with epilepsy.

The lives of thousands of people may be threatened if the government's plan to phase out the normal variety of incandescent lighting goes ahead without exemptions.

Sufferers could be prevented from using electric light in their own homes, visit family and friends, or have access to employment and public services.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

India Ink

In Japan, Indian education is all the rage:
Despite an improved economy, many Japanese are feeling a sense of insecurity about the nation’s schools, which once turned out students who consistently ranked at the top of international tests. That is no longer true, which is why many people here are looking for lessons from India, the country the Japanese see as the world’s ascendant education superpower.

Bookstores are filled with titles like “Extreme Indian Arithmetic Drills” and “The Unknown Secrets of the Indians.” Newspapers carry reports of Indian children memorizing multiplication tables far beyond nine times nine, the standard for young elementary students in Japan.

And Japan’s few Indian international schools are reporting a surge in applications from Japanese families.

At the Little Angels English Academy & International Kindergarten, the textbooks are from India, most of the teachers are South Asian, and classroom posters depict animals out of Indian tales. The kindergarten students even color maps of India in the green and saffron of its flag.
Little Angels is located in this Tokyo suburb, where only one of its 45 students is Indian. Most are Japanese.

....Much of Japan has long looked down on the rest of Asia, priding itself on being the region’s most advanced nation. Indeed, Japan has dominated the continent for more than a century, first as an imperial power and more recently as the first Asian economy to achieve Western levels of economic development.

....Grudgingly, Japan is starting to respect its neighbors.

“Until now, Japanese saw China and India as backwards and poor,” said Yoshinori Murai, a professor of Asian cultures at Sophia University in Tokyo. “As Japan loses confidence in itself, its attitudes toward Asia are changing. It has started seeing India and China as nations with something to offer.”

Call us when the Paz model is ready

The computer geeks are readying for the brave new world:
If you're younger than 35, you'll probably live long enough to put David Levy's prediction to the test. Levy says that by 2050 we'll be creating robots so lifelike, so imbued with human-seeming intelligence and emotions, as to be nearly indistinguishable from real people. And we'll have sex with these robots. Some of us will even marry them. And it will all be good.

Levy lays out his vision of a Brave New Carnal World in Love and Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, which, despite its extended riffs on sex toys through the ages, is a snigger-free book. Levy's no Al Goldstein. Rather he's a 62-year-old British chess master turned artificial-intelligence expert persuaded that robot sex can brighten the lives of many, many unhappy people. "Great sex on tap for everyone, 24/7,'' he writes on the final page of the book. What's not to like?

"Chess'' and "sex'' aren't words that normally share the same sentence, but in Levy's case, the one led to the other. A keen chessman since boyhood, by the time he got to St. Andrews University he played at the international level. At the university he got interested in computers and the challenge of programming machines to play chess. Eventually he earned international recognition for his work on chess-playing computers and natural-language software, and in the mid '90s headed a team that won the Loebner Prize, widely regarded as the world championship of conversational software. Today he owns a firm that develops electronic hand-held brain games.

Birthday Girl

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Me and little J-O-S-E won't be goin' away

Tammy Wynette had it better than any Cuban wife:
Estranged Cuban couples sometimes remain under the same roof for years or even lifetimes, learning that while divorce on the island is easy, housing is not. The phenomenon is a testament not only to the communist-run island's severe housing shortage, but also to Cubans' ability to stay friendly — or at least civil — under the most awkward of circumstances.

"In a developed country, you get divorced and someone goes to a hotel and then to a new house," said Llera, a 60-year-old mechanic. "Here we had to keep living like a couple."

....By law, Cubans cannot sell their homes and because the state controls almost all property, moves must be approved. Housing is so scarce, however, that often there is nowhere to go.

....Another Havana resident, 45-year-old Mirta, decided to divorce her husband of 18 years in 1997. The couple hired a lawyer and signed papers amicably.

But neither one could move out. A decade later, they still share the same two-bedroom apartment off the famed Malecon seaside promenade with their sons, now 18 and 20.

"We use the same kitchen, same bathroom. We have separate bedrooms, but the electricity, the telephone, the refrigerator — there's only one," Mirta said. "If you're going to get dressed, you have to hide in the bathroom or in the bedroom. There's no privacy."

She said she and her ex-husband clash over utility bills and race home from work for first use of the stove at dinner time.

....Mirta, who asked that her full name and profession not be published because she did not want to be identified publicly as complaining about Cuba's housing crunch.