Friday, February 29, 2008

Gone (for) Fishing

When they say, 'No Fishing', they mean, 'No Fishing':
The drama began when two North Korean fishing boats containing 14 women and eight men - among them three teenagers - drifted into waters off South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island.

South Korean officials, suspecting at first that the group were intending to defect, questioned them about their plans and were told they had accidentally strayed from North Korean waters and had no intention of defecting.

There were a large number of women on the vessels, it was explained, because they were needed to clean the oysters and clams.

Satisfied with their story, the South Koreans seized the two boats, however, and sent the group back across the border through an overland route.

....However a source with North Korean contacts has reported that immediately after the group arrived back over the border they were all shot.

"They weren't even given the option of going to a prison camp. They were simply executed," said the source.

An intelligence official said it was possible the 22 people were executed because they had set out on a fishing expedition without authorisation from the North Korean maritime authorities.

First, Do No Harm

Second, do no Britain's National Health Service:
A Conservative peer has delivered a devastating attack on nurses who looked after him during a stay in hospital ....

....When I was taken ill I was taken to an accident and emergency place in a West Country hospital.

"I can only tell you that it is a miracle that I am still alive. The wards were filthy. Underneath the bed where I was, there lay a piece of dirty cotton wool and it remained there for several days. The ward was never cleaned.

"It was a gastroenterology ward with lots people with very unpleasant infectious diseases. Neither the ward, nor the tables, nor the beds, nor the bathrooms were cleaned.

"I was extremely infectious at that time but they took no precautions with me at all. They were furious when my wife wanted my bed cleaned when it clearly needed cleaning.

"It was appalling. The nurses - probably the most important people in this very complex area - were an accurate reflection of many young women in Britain today."

Lord Mancroft, 50, said he was eventually "kidnapped" from the hospital by his wife, and transferred to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in west London where he received "wonderful" treatment from the nurses.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Drive away the huddled masses yearning ... work and invest--in the U.S. it's called Obamanomics--in your country:
Britain's biggest business lobby has launched a stinging attack on the Government's controversial plans to tax non-domiciles, claiming it will hurt the UK economy and raise little in the way of revenue.

Richard Lambert, the director-general of the CBI, said: "At a time of growing economic uncertainty it is vital we do all we can to keep wealth generators and their businesses in the country, not make them feel unwelcome and drive them out."

There are about 120,000 non-domiciled in Britain. Under plans due to take effect in April, anyone who has claimed non-dom status for seven of the last ten years will have to pay an annual fee of £30,000 to the Exchequer.

....The CBI's salvo came as the head of Britain's private equity industry said that the non-dom legislation could trigger a flight of capital from London's key financial services industry.

....Simon Walker, head of the British Venture Capital and Private Equity Association, added to the weight of criticism over the policy and cited a newspaper advertisement from a property company in Zurich urging non-doms to go and live there.

"That says more than I can," he said, expressing fears of an exodus away from London and the creation of a barrier to foreigners wanting to do business in the capital.

....A number of foreign nationals living in the UK and working in the City are already said to be planning to leave. That could hit the private equity business in the UK, which currently accounts for almost 60pc of all European deals.

....Seminars are being organised by foreign lawyers in London to act as shop windows to persuade tax experts to advise their clients to move away from the UK.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

With the socialists treating them this way...

...can the welfare state continue in Britain:
Millions of benefit claimants will be forced back to work in the biggest shake-up of the welfare state for 60 years, ministers will announce.

Large parts of the benefits system are to be privatised, with companies hired to find jobs for the unemployed, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.

Private firms will be given incentives of up to £50,000 each to get people back to work and reduce the country's £12 billion annual incapacity benefit bill.Only last month, David Freud, the government adviser on whose recommendations the reforms are based, said he believed that up to 1.9 million of those claiming they are too sick to work could be found jobs.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of lone parents will face stiff requirements to find jobs or face losing their benefits, a move certain to infuriate Labour backbenchers.

People who refuse to co-operate and reject work interviews will have their benefits "sliced".

The proposals, to be announced by James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, represent the largest shake-up in the welfare state since it was established after the Second World War following the Beveridge Report of 1942.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Impawsible Takes a Little While

Walk a mile in their shoes:
Police dogs in the German city of Dusseldorf are being trained to wear shoes to protect them against injuries from broken glass.

Dusseldorf's team of 20 German and Belgian shepherds are at risk from smashed bottles in the city centre, a police spokesman said.

Training to help the dogs get used to the shoes, which arrived two weeks ago, is said to be going well.

....Police spokesman Gunter Herring said the main risk was in Dusseldorf's old city centre, known for its late-night drinking.

"There are many people and sometimes in the late evening or during the night we have drunken people and they throw their bottles or glasses away," Mr Herring told the BBC News website.
The dogs have picked up minor injuries in the past, he said.

"Now we are conditioning the dogs to wearing their shoes to protect them in these areas from the glass and cuts."

The dogs are also at risk around the city's large football stadium, Mr Herring said.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Dr. Bicycle and Mr. Hide

If they're too stupid to get a credit card before letting a stranger pedal away, do they really deserve their own lanes:
On a drizzly day last February, a young, athletic man in hospital scrubs walked into a triathlon-supply store in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood and said he wanted to buy a very expensive bicycle, and right away.

The man said he was an oncologist, and he looked and talked the part. So the staff at Speedy Reedy Multisport set him up with a $6,800 road bike and a helmet, and he sped off for a test ride on the Burke-Gilman Trail, leaving just his name, which he said was Tony.

He also left behind a Tully's coffee cup — with "Jake" written on it.

When neither the bike nor the man returned, the store called Seattle police. They took that coffee cup and tested it for DNA, which traced back to an unlikely suspect: Jacob J. Bos, a respected 35-year-old podiatrist from Longview.

Police and prosecutors say they have connected Bos to a string of high-end bike thefts stretching across the Northwest. And in doing so, they have left his friends and colleagues befuddled at an apparent secret side to the avid bike racer.

Apparently you don't have to be a rocket scientist to run a bike shop, since the bad doctor didn't steal just one:
Even as police were investigating the Fremont theft, one high-end bike after another was vanishing during test rides. In March, a $4,500 bike was ridden away from a Tacoma shop. In June, a $6,000 bike was taken from a store in Portland. In September, a shop in Bothell lost a $5,800 bike.

Bos even returned to Speedy Reedy in Fremont, according to charging papers in Cowlitz County. In December, he managed to ride off on a $5,500 Scott Plasma by talking store co-owner Reed Sillers — who wasn't on duty during the first theft — into another test ride.

"He knew what he was going to do, and knew he had us completely snowed," Sillers said. "He was a smooth operator."

....In Seattle, John Teeters, the owner of Triumph Multisport, said he won't be burned again.

"We're a really small shop and know most of our customers by name, and for years," he said.

"We assume better of people. Now, I don't care if it's my brother. It's 'Sign here, give me the driver's license and credit card.' "

Thursday, February 21, 2008

No Omar Hero

To his parking valet:
Parking valet Juan Anderson is wondering whether actor Omar Sharif will pay up in dollars or in euros after winning a $318,190 judgment from the film star as the result of a 2005 altercation outside a Beverly Hills restaurant. The "Dr Zhivago" star allegedly punched Anderson in the face when the valet refused a 20 euro note as payment for retrieving his car. Anderson, who is from Guatemala, alleged that Sharif called him a "stupid Mexican" and sued Sharif. On Tuesday, a Santa Monica Superior Court judge awarded Anderson $318,190 in damages.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

We're from the government, and we're here to...

...make sure you die if you're sick in Britain:
Although the government is reluctant to discuss it, hopscotching back and forth between private and public care has long been standard here for those who can afford it. But a few recent cases have exposed fundamental contradictions between policy and practice in the system, and tested its founding philosophy to its very limits.

One such case was Debbie Hirst's. Her breast cancer had metastasized, and the health service would not provide her with Avastin, a drug that is widely used in the United States and Europe to keep such cancers at bay. So, with her oncologist's support, she decided last year to try to pay the roughly £60,000, or $116,000, cost herself, while continuing with the rest of her publicly financed treatment.

By December, she had raised £10,000 and was preparing to sell her house to raise more. But then the government, which had tacitly allowed such arrangements before, put its foot down. Hirst heard the news from her doctor.

"He looked at me and said, 'I'm so sorry, Debbie. I've had my wrists slapped from the people upstairs, and I can no longer offer you that service,' " Hirst said.

"I said, 'Where does that leave me?' He said, 'If you pay for Avastin, you'll have to pay for everything' " - in other words, for all her cancer treatment, far more than she could afford.

Officials said that allowing Hirst and others like her to pay for extra drugs to supplement government care would violate the philosophy of the health service by giving richer patients an unfair advantage over poorer ones.

Patients "cannot, in one episode of treatment, be treated on the NHS and then allowed, as part of the same episode and the same treatment, to pay money for more drugs," Health Secretary Alan Johnson told Parliament. "That way lies the end of the founding principles of the NHS."

Maybe that ought to be a consideration. I.e. that the health of the patients be thought more important that of the bureaucracy taking care of them.

In Hirst's case, the confusion was compounded by the fact that three other patients at her hospital were already doing what she had been forbidden to do - buying extra drugs to supplement their cancer care. The arrangements had "evolved without anyone questioning whether it was right or wrong," said Laura Mason, a hospital spokeswoman. Because their treatment began before the Health Department explicitly condemned the practice, they have been allowed to continue.

....One of Hirst's troubles came, it seems, because the Avastin she proposed to pay for would have had to be administered at the same time as the drug Taxol, which she was receiving free on the health service. Because of that, she could not schedule separate appointments.

But in a final irony, Hirst was told early this month that her cancer had spread and her condition had deteriorated so much that she could have the Avastin after all - paid for by the health service. In other words, a system that forbade her to buy the medicine earlier was now saying that she was so sick she could have it at public expense.

Hirst is pleased, but only to a point. Avastin is not a cure, but a way to extend her life, perhaps only by several months, and she has missed valuable time. "It may be too bloody late," she said.

Give us your huddled masses...

Yearning to pay fees:
Foreigners coming to Britain are to face a new "immigrant tax" under Government plans to try to make them help pay for the schools and hospitals they use, ministers are to announce.

....The announcement follows growing evidence that health, education and social services are coming under increasing strain from immigration, with councils complaining that they need hundreds of millions of pounds more every year to cope.Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, will announce that those immigrants assessed to be more of a burden on the state will have to pay a higher levy.

It means older applicants - who are likely to need more health care for example - will pay more than young, skilled workers.

MPs in areas where immigrant numbers have risen in recent years - particularly from eastern Europe - complain that services are near breaking point.

But critics warned last night that the move would not generate anywhere near the sums needed to cover the cost of providing health care and education to hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

Monday, February 18, 2008


England loses a stalwart:
Sir Ralph Howell, who died on February 14 aged 84, was Conservative MP for North Norfolk for 27 years, becoming the leading Parliamentary campaigner for "workfare" and the elimination of the benefits "trap" that discourages the jobless from working.

Convinced of the need to provide incentives to work rather than paying people not to, Howell urged successive governments to adopt an American-style system of "workfare". Margaret Thatcher regarded him warmly and was tempted to give his ideas a trial, and at times it seemed that this would happen. But her social security and employment ministers were more cautious, and Howell found himself fighting a rearguard action to prevent them making matters worse; in March 1981 he upbraided Patrick Jenkin for raising child benefit by more for the unemployed than for those in work.

A rough-hewn but agreeable Norfolk farmer, Howell set out his case in his 1976 book Why Work?, which asserted that half the working population would be better off on benefit. He followed it up with Why Not Work? (1991) and Putting Britain Back to Work (1995).

His influence was greatest in the mid-1980s, when he chaired the Conservative backbench employment committee and served on the 1922 Committee executive. During this period he proposed a one-year National Work Service for school leavers, attempted to block social security payments to newly-arrived immigrants and unmarried couples with children, and urged that hippie convoys be subjected to workfare before receiving benefits.

On most issues Howell was well to the Right of his party. He pressed for tax cuts funded by cuts in public sector "overmanning"; voted for the reintroduction of capital punishment; and championed white Rhodesia, which just before UDI he described as "the only patch of civilisation in Africa, except of course South Africa".

We'll drink to that

Chris Auld, call your office:
Beer is bad for science, according to a pioneering study of the effects of alcohol on creativity in research.

....One of the most frequent social activities in the world is drinking alcohol - around two billion are thought to partake - and Dr Tomas Grim, who is a behavioural ecologist at Palacky University, Czech Republic, decided to investigate, reporting the discovery that it harms science in the prestigious ecological journal Oikos.

In Europe, most alcohol is consumed as beer, according to the World Health Organisation.

"Based on well known negative effects of alcohol consumption on cognitive performance, I predicted negative correlations between beer consumption and several measures of scientific performance," Dr Grim says.

Like his fellow ecologists, who tend to focus on a single species in a single population, to eliminate non alcohol related confounding factors, he focused on one particularly impressive country of beer swillers.

Using a survey of the publications since 1980 of avian ecologists from the Czech Republic, which has the highest per capita beer consumption rate in the world (157 litres each year, or 176 pints), he discovered "that increasing per capita beer consumption is associated with lower numbers of papers, total citations, and citations per paper (a surrogate measure of paper quality)."

Hooray for Hostagewood

Those malcontented French employees strike again:
French tyre-maker Michelin reported on Friday a 35.3 percent surge in 2007 net profit as workers at a company factory in eastern France scheduled to be shut down next year were holding two managers at the site.

....the company on Friday was confronted with a stand-off in the eastern French town of Toul, where disgruntled workers were holding two managers at a plant that Michelin plans to close next year with the loss of 826 jobs.

The two managers, the social relations director and the head of personnel, have been prevented from leaving the plant since Thursday morning following a meeting with union representatives on personnel measures that would accompany the plant closure, sources at the scene said.

A Michelin spokesman said early on Friday that the men had "passed the night in the room and are still there." Production has been sharply reduced since Wednesday night when a pile of tyres was set alight in front of the facility.

Friday, February 15, 2008

We Decry the Stereotype

But, the economics was clever...and cheap:
When her estranged husband asked her to give their marriage a second chance, Frances Niznik was happy to agree.

With daughter Amelia to think about she was anxious to try again, so she uprooted from upmarket Henley-on-Thames and moved 400 miles north to Edinburgh.

But just a week into the trial reconciliation she was astonished when her wealthy fund manager husband Mark told her he was moving out.

He then swiftly filed for divorce in a Scottish court, which would give her a much smaller settlement than an English one.

English courts take into account bonus payments when assessing salary but Scottish divorce laws do not, which meant Mr Niznik could claim he earned a far smaller income.

Last night Mrs Niznik, 37, said the reconciliation appeared to her to be nothing more than a cynical attempt to exploit the differences in divorce law between England and Scotland.

"It's as if Mark lured me up just so he could divorce me in Scotland and protect his fortune," she said.

....Mrs Niznik said: "The divorce was heard in Scotland, because he got it listed for March 2007 whereas my divorce petition was listed in the High Court in London for May 2007.

"I was told that a Scottish court wasn't going to give up its right to hear the case first.

"Because Scots law doesn't take account of bonus payments, Mark declared he was earning only £7,000 a month. His bonus package for 2006 alone was £243,875."

In the end, Mrs Niznik agreed to accept a lump sum of £750,000, including the former marital home.

She said: "It sounds a lot and I know I am much more fortunate than many other women. The mortgage on the house was paid off, but I was left without any pension rights and I have to pay legal bills of over £150,000.

"An English court would have given me monthly maintenance of several thousand pounds, plus I would have retained the rights to his pension."

Licenced to Inhale

A Pigouvian tax sneaking its nose into the tent in Britain:
Smokers could be forced to pay for a Government tobacco licence in order to carry on buying cigarettes under draconian proposals being considered by ministers.

....Under the plans, anyone who refused to pay for a permit would be banned from buying cigarettes from any outlet.

Although a licence could cost as little as £10 a year, forms would be made deliberately complex to deter people from applying.

Smokers could also be forced to obtain a doctor's signature, declaring their health was not at "massive risk" from their habit.

The scheme is the brainchild of Julian Le Grand, a professor at the London School of Economics, who heads the ministerial advisory board, Health England.

....In a paper written for health minister Lord Darzi, Professor Le Grand writes: "Suppose every individual who wanted to buy tobacco had to purchase a permit.

"And suppose further that they had to do this every year. To get a permit would involve filling out a form and supplying a photograph, as well as paying the fee.

"Permits would only be issued to those over 18 and evidence of age would have to be provided. The money raised would go to the NHS."

....Simon Clark, of smokers' rights group Forest, said the smoking permit proposal was outrageous.

"We are becoming not just a nanny state but a bully state," he said.

...."There are a whole host of things out there that are potentially dangerous. If smokers are targeted in this way, it's a very short step to slapping a similar charge on anyone who wants to buy alcohol or any other product ministers don"t approve of."

Not Making Comrades Like They Used To

The heir apparent to Vladimir Putin wants to downsize government:
The man expected to become Russia's next president, Dmitry Medvedev, has said that reducing the economic role of the state was among his priorities.

In a speech that focused on the economy, Mr Medvedev also said he would tackle corruption if elected.

....Mr Medvedev, 42, is first deputy prime minister and head of Russia's state gas monopoly, Gazprom.

Speaking at the Krasnoyarsk economic forum in Siberia on Friday, he said "a significant share of the functions carried out by state organs should be given over to the private sector".

Large state-owned companies should adapt to remain competitive, he said.

....Mr Medvedev said he would seek to make Russia into "one of the biggest financial centres in the world" with a stable currency, strong banking sector and reformed tax system.

He talked little about foreign policy or defence but stressed the need to create an independent judiciary.

"One of the key elements of our work in the next four years will be ensuring the independence of our legal system from the executive and legislative branches of power," he said.

Cost of Good Intentions

Look to our old friends the Laws of Supply and Demand, to know why you can't afford a house:
An intriguing new analysis by a University of Washington economics professor argues that home prices have, perhaps inadvertently, been driven up $200,000 by good intentions.

Between 1989 and 2006, the median inflation-adjusted price of a Seattle house rose from $221,000 to $447,800. Fully $200,000 of that increase was the result of land-use regulations, says Theo Eicher — twice the financial impact that regulation has had on other major U.S. cities.

"In a nationwide study, it can be shown that Seattle is one of the most regulated cities and a city whose housing prices are profoundly influenced by regulations," he says.

A key regulation is the state's Growth Management Act, enacted in 1990 in response to widespread public concern that sprawl could destroy the area's unique character. To preserve it, the act promoted restrictions on where housing can be built. The result is artificial density that has driven up home prices by limiting supply, Eicher says.

Long building-permit approval times and municipal land-use restrictions upheld by courts also have played significant roles in increasing Seattle's housing costs, he adds.

....Compared with 250 major U.S. cities, he says, Seattle:

• Is first in terms of the impact of state political involvement in land issues.
• Is in the top 3 percent for approval delays for new construction.
• Is in the top 10 percent in local political pressure influencing land use.

As an example of how this plays out, Eicher explains that "the statewide growth-management plan gave King County few options but to require that landowners in rural areas that haven't already cleared their land to keep 50 to 65 percent of their property in its 'natural state.' This forced greater density in Seattle."

Then a King County referendum to repeal some of the county's land-use restrictions was judged illegal in 2006 by the state Supreme Court because it violated the state's Growth Management Act.

"The state is intervening to restrict supply. It's not that there's no land at all," Eicher says.
Economists hold that housing costs are driven by supply and demand, and say those factors have certainly influenced the cost of Seattle's housing.

But Eicher argues that "demand does not need to drive up housing prices."

Cities such as Houston and Atlanta, which have few growth restrictions, have shown that. They've been able to add enough housing to meet demand, so their home prices have risen more moderately than heavily regulated San Francisco and Boston, which have a harder time increasing housing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

There's always a kiss on the hand

Paul Krugman should rejoice at this evidence of decreasing income inequality:
Blue Nile, the Internet's largest diamond retailer, says 2008 is off to a disappointing start as consumers pull back on buying top-of-the-line jewelry.

...."Consumers are holding back," Blue Nile founder Mark Vadon told analysts during a conference call after the close of regular trading. "We're in a very, very transitional time right now, and the market is relatively weak."

....Vadon called 2007 an "excellent year for the company" but painted a different picture for 2008.

He said Blue Nile has begun to experience "weakness at very high price points," shooting a hole through the theory that wealthy consumers would continue to splurge on luxury products despite economic turmoil.

....Sales of jewelry with price tags above $25,000 "all of a sudden are very, very weak," Vadon said. "The very, very high-end consumer is finally showing some vulnerability."

Monday, February 11, 2008

We're from the government, and we're here to...

sink your business:
Cruise lines and U.S. ports, including Seattle, fear proposed changes to federal rules could drastically alter cruise itineraries.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection proposal would require foreign-flagged cruise ships that depart from a U.S. port to spend 48 hours in a foreign port. It would also require them to spend more than 24 hours in a foreign port for every two days in a U.S. port.

More time in foreign ports would mean less in U.S. ports, and fewer tourists to spill out of the ships and spend money in places like Southeast Alaska, Seattle and Portland, Maine.

The proposed change is aimed at helping U.S.-flagged cruise ships based in Hawaii to compete against foreign cruise ships sailing from California by reducing the foreign ships' time in the islands. It would close a loophole that allowed foreign-flagged ships to sail from U.S. ports to Hawaii by stopping briefly in Mexico on the way.

Critics say the sweeping change, which as proposed would extend far beyond Hawaii cruises, will imperil hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues and port improvements on the mainland U.S.

"They've sunk all of this money into cruise facilities and now the government is changing the rules," said Aaron Ellis, communications director for the American Association of Port Authorities, which opposes the proposed rule change.

The Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 24 operators including Carnival Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line and Royal Caribbean International, warns that about 10 million U.S. vacationers stand to have their cruises altered or canceled unless the federal proposal is changed.

....Customs and Border Protection acknowledges that it didn't foresee all of the potential ramifications of the change, which was intended to protect two Norwegian Cruise Line ships that fly the U.S. flag in Hawaii. Rival foreign-flagged competitors based in Los Angeles and San Diego stop briefly in Ensenada, Mexico, before traveling to Hawaii.

The agency's solution to help NCL America was a new interpretation of the 122-year-old Passenger Vessel Services Act, a federal law that forbids foreign-flagged vessels from transporting passengers directly between U.S. ports. To meet the federal requirement, those ships must make a foreign port call as part of their cruise itinerary.

As it stands, foreign-flagged cruise ships traveling from Los Angeles and San Diego to Hawaii make a brief stop in Ensenada — a "touch and go" — before continuing to Hawaii.

The agency's new interpretation defines a foreign port call as a 48-hour layover, putting a crimp in the itinerary of foreign-flagged ships.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Go Northwest, Young Man

If you've got aerospace skills, Boeing could use you:
Roughly a quarter of the nation's 637,000 aerospace workers could be eligible for retirement this year, raising fears that America could face a serious skills shortage in the factories that churn out commercial and military aircraft.

"It's a looming issue that's getting more serious year by year," said Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association. "These are real veterans. It's a hard work force to replace."

The association, which represents aircraft manufacturers and suppliers, has designated the potential skills drain as one of its top 10 priorities in this year's presidential race. One of the major aerospace unions is embracing the issue in a rare alliance between labor and management.

"It's not a problem that's coming. It's here," said Frank Larkin, spokesman for the 720,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

....Ten years ago, the industry's largest age group was 35 to 44. In 2007, nearly 60 percent of the work force was 45 or older. At least 20 percent were between the ages of 55 to 64, and many, if not most, were already eligible for retirement.

The problem is essentially one of supply and demand. Both the commercial and military segments of the industry are enjoying robust growth, with sales expected to increase by $12 billion this year.

The demand for aerospace, electrical, mechanical and computer engineering disciplines is expected to be double what it was 10 years ago.

But analysts and corporate bosses say higher education is turning out far too few engineering and aeronautical graduates to fill future vacancies. Public schools' poor record in teaching math and science is another worry.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Anorexia Cook-off

Slurp it up liberally:
Five of Milan's top models showed off their culinary skills on Friday to boost the Italian fashion industry's campaign against anorexia.

The cooking contest, staged at Milan's School of Italian Cuisine a week before Milan Fashion Week, was won by 24-year-old Brazilian model Shalana Santana.

.....She won with what judges described as a ''particularly elaborate'' version of a high-class restaurant dish, lentil and cod stew.

.... Last year the Italian fashion world adopted an anti-anorexia code as part of a drive to fight the message that ultra-thin is beautiful.

A key requirement of the new code is that models have a body mass index of at least 18.5, slightly above the figure laid down by the World Health Organization as marking the line between 'normal' and 'underweight'.

Will It Ward Off Ann Coulter?

John McCain might want to wear one of these T-shirts under his dress shirt:
Jesús Malverde has been revered for almost a century in northwestern Mexico. According to folklore, he was a Mexican Robin Hood who took from the rich and gave to the poor until he was killed by the police in 1909.

Now, immigrants have brought his legend to the United States. His image, which is thought to offer protection from the law, can be found on items that include T-shirts and household cleaners.

Malverde is widely considered the patron saint of drug dealers, say law enforcement officials and experts on Mexican culture. A shrine has been erected atop his grave in the remote city of Culiacán in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, which has long been associated with opium and marijuana trafficking.

"The drug guys go to the shrine and ask for assistance and come back in big cars and with stacks of money to give thanks," said James Creechan, a Canadian sociologist and adjunct professor at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa in Culiacán.

But Creechan, who presented a paper on Malverde to the American Society of Criminology in 2005, added that the poor also pray to Malverde for money and safe passage across the border into the United States.

....Five years ago, Indio Products, a manufacturer in the Los Angeles area that distributes mystical products, did not carry any Malverde merchandise. Today, it has a full line of Malverde items including candles, rosaries, trading cards, stamps, hair oils and bathroom cleaners. The company's president, Martin Mayer, said Malverde's popularity was spreading.

....drug enforcement authorities in Mexico and the United States said Malverde statues, tattoos and amulets can be tip-offs to illegal activity.

"We send squads out to local hotel and motel parking lots looking for cars with Malverde symbols on the windshield or hanging from the rearview mirror," said Sergeant Rico Garcia with the narcotics division of the Houston Police Department. "It gives us a clue that something is probably going on."

....Last month, Cervecería Minerva, a Mexican microbrewery in the central-western state of Jalisco, introduced a beer called Malverde. Company officials said they chose Malverde's name and image for its label because he was the most recognizable and admired figure in focus groups.

"Drug smugglers drink it like holy water," Garcia said.

Not Easy Being Green

Bad news for the Iowa Caucuses:
Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the pollution caused by producing these "green" fuels is taken into account, two studies published Thursday have concluded.

....These studies for the first time take a comprehensive look at the emissions effects of the huge amount of land that is being converted to cropland globally to support biofuels development. The destruction of natural ecosystems - whether rain forest in the tropics or grasslands in South America - increases the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere because the ecosystems are the planet's natural sponge for carbon emissions.

"When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially," said Timothy Searchinger, the lead author of one of the studies and a researcher on the environment and economics at Princeton University. "Previously, there's been an accounting error: Land use change has been left out of prior analysis."

Plant-based fuels were originally billed as better than fossil fuels because the carbon released when they are burned is balanced by the carbon absorbed when the plants grow. But even that equation proved overly simplistic because the process of turning plants into fuel causes it own emissions - through refining and transport, for example.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Has Ties to the Community

What's left of it, anyway:
The senior surviving leader of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime has appeared in court to appeal against his detention by a genocide tribunal.

Nuon Chea, who faces charges of crimes against humanity, requested bail on the grounds he was not a flight risk.

....Nuon Chea was deputy to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, under whose brutal four-year rule more than one million people are believed to have died.

Experts believe Nuon Chea was the ideological driving force behind the regime and responsible for its most radical policies.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

He Told You So

Stan Liebowitz details the forgotten history--from those glorious Clinton years--that led to the subprime loan debacle:
...a "landmark" 1992 study from the Boston Fed concluded that mortgage-lending discrimination was systemic.

That study was tremendously flawed - a colleague and I later showed that the data it had used contained thousands of egregious typos, such as loans with negative interest rates. Our study found no evidence of discrimination.

Yet the political agenda triumphed - with the president of the Boston Fed saying no new studies were needed, and the US comptroller of the currency seconding the motion.

No sooner had the ink dried on its discrimination study than the Boston Fed, clearly speaking for the entire Fed, produced a manual for mortgage lenders stating that: "discrimination may be observed when a lender's underwriting policies contain arbitrary or outdated criteria that effectively disqualify many urban or lower-income minority applicants."

Some of these "outdated" criteria included the size of the mortgage payment relative to income, credit history, savings history and income verification. Instead, the Boston Fed ruled that participation in a credit-counseling program should be taken as evidence of an applicant's ability to manage debt.

Sound crazy? You bet. Those "outdated" standards existed to limit defaults. But bank regulators required the loosened underwriting standards, with approval by politicians and the chattering class. A 1995 strengthening of the Community Reinvestment Act required banks to find ways to provide mortgages to their poorer communities. It also let community activists intervene at yearly bank reviews, shaking the banks down for large pots of money.

Banks that got poor reviews were punished; some saw their merger plans frustrated; others faced direct legal challenges by the Justice Department.

Flexible lending programs expanded even though they had higher default rates than loans with traditional standards. On the Web, you can still find CRA loans available via ACORN with "100 percent financing . . . no credit scores . . . undocumented income . . . even if you don't report it on your tax returns." Credit counseling is required, of course.

Ironically, an enthusiastic Fannie Mae Foundation report singled out one paragon of nondiscriminatory lending, which worked with community activists and followed "the most flexible underwriting criteria permitted."

That lender's $1 billion commitment to low-income loans in 1992 had grown to $80 billion by 1999 and $600 billion by early 2003.

Who was that virtuous lender? Why - Countrywide, the nation's largest mortgage lender, recently in the headlines as it hurtled toward bankruptcy.

In an earlier newspaper story extolling the virtues of relaxed underwriting standards, Countrywide's chief executive bragged that, to approve minority applications that would otherwise be rejected "lenders have had to stretch the rules a bit." He's not bragging now.

For years, rising house prices hid the default problems since quick refinances were possible. But now that house prices have stopped rising, we can clearly see the damage caused by relaxed lending standards.

Which damage was predicted back then, by Liebowitz and his colleague Ted Day, in the scholarly journal Economic Inquiry. They wrote:

After the warm and fuzzy glow of 'flexible underwriting standards' has worn off, we may discover that they are nothing more than standards that lead to bad loans . . . these policies will have done a disservice to their putative beneficiaries if . . . they are dispossessed from their homes.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Thank You for Smoking...

and eating and drinking:
It costs more to care for healthy people who live years longer, according to a Dutch study that counters the common perception that preventing obesity would save governments millions of dollars.

"It was a small surprise," said Pieter van Baal, an economist at the Netherlands' National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, who led the study. "But it also makes sense. If you live longer, then you cost the health system more."

In a paper published online Monday in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal, Dutch researchers found that the health costs of thin and healthy people in adulthood are higher than those of either fat people or smokers.

....The study was paid for by the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports.

"We are not recommending that governments stop trying to prevent obesity," van Baal said.

"But they should do it for the right reasons."

The Incredible Shrinking Nuns

Knuckled schoolboys around the world rejoice:
The Vatican has reported a further dramatic fall in the number of Roman Catholic monks and nuns worldwide.

Newly published statistics showed that the number of men and women belonging to religious orders fell by 10% to just under a million between 2005 and 2006.

During the pontificate of the late Pope John Paul II, the number of Catholic nuns worldwide declined by a quarter.

The downward trend accelerated despite a steady increase in the membership of the Catholic Church to more than 1.1bn.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Two Can Live as Cheaply...

If they're the subsidized harem of one man, in Britain:
Husbands with multiple wives have been given the go-ahead to claim extra welfare benefits following a year-long Government review, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.

Even though bigamy is a crime in Britain, the decision by ministers means that polygamous marriages can now be recognised formally by the state, so long as the weddings took place in countries where the arrangement is legal.

The outcome will chiefly benefit Muslim men with more than one wife, as is permitted under Islamic law. Ministers estimate that up to a thousand polygamous partnerships exist in Britain, although they admit there is no exact record.

The decision has been condemned by the Tories, who accused the Government of offering preferential treatment to a particular group, and of setting a precedent that would lead to demands for further changes in British law.

New guidelines on income support from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) state: "Where there is a valid polygamous marriage the claimant and one spouse will be paid the couple rate ... The amount payable for each additional spouse is presently £33.65."

Thinking On Her Feet

One word (for her feet); Plastic:
Cheap, cheerful and totally disposable, the plastic jelly shoe is about as ubiquitous as footwear gets. ....

In countries like Brazil, where the open shoe keeps feet ventilated and gritty beach sand from clinging, it is little wonder that humble jellies are big business. There, they are as much a part of the lifestyle as the bikini. So where else could a single jelly shoe brand seduce design snobs, fashionistas and the masses alike - to the tune of about 2.3 million pairs a year.

In mom-and-pop style stalls on the outskirts of São Paulo's favelas, Melissa is the status-bearing brand among the many rival plastic sandals and flip-flops in the bargain bins. Yet just up in the hill at Melissa's flagship concept boutique in the luxury triangle of Oscar Freire, customers spending 50 times as much for crystal-studded versions eagerly await the release of new styles created by the world's most provocative architects and fashion designers.

How is a brand that started by selling plastic packaging for wine crates able to straddle both worlds and defy the business caveat that you can't be everything to everyone?

"Many companies around the world produce plastic shoes and this category is extremely popular. But our way of positioning Melissa as an authentic design object is through its intellectual value," said Edson Matsuo, the brand's creative director, who pointed out that the more exclusive ranges of Melissa are now found around the world in fashion retail meccas like Colette in Paris, Opening Ceremony in New York and Dover Street Market in London.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Shrooming Economy

It's bonkers in Holland:
THE HAGUE – The sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms rose dramatically last year. The National Association of Smartshops (VLOS) reports that the sales of magic mushrooms increased 20 percent.

....The capital is the centre for the trade in mushrooms.

Public Health Minister Ab Klink and Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin decided last year to ban the cultivation and sale of fresh mushrooms. Dried mushrooms have long been banned under narcotics legislation.

[VLOS board member Guy] Boels says the number of incidents in Amsterdam actually declined last year in relative terms, taking the increased sales figures into account. The owners of smartshops, shops that sell mushrooms and drug paraphernalia, are using this argument to support their case against a ban.

They would rather see better regulation on the sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms, by only allowing sales in specialised shops for instance.

They also support Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen's proposal to institute a 3-day waiting period before a purchaser can pick up the mushrooms.