Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thoughts on competition, customer service and OCS*

* Offended Customer Syndrome

This post may be an instance of prostalgia, that pleasant feeling of longing expectation for the future, but a recent case of consumer dissatisfaction that I experienced related to my recent road trip has caused me to conclude that our competitive economy is making it harder and harder to get bad service.

The episode in question originated with service work I had done on my 1999 Plymouth Grand Voyager minivan on May 1st in preparation for the road trip. With 85,000 miles on the odometer, I knew that the car needed new brakes and probably some other engine related work that I knew the professionals at the local Plymouth dealership would be all too happy to apprise me of, so I expected a sizeable estimate. I was not disappointed in that prediction, but having earned my trust in past service efforts, I assented to the majority of items on the list, one of which was to flush the transmission lines.

I left my home in Minnesota early on Saturday May 5th, planning to arrive in Cleveland in the late evening. I hadn’t gotten more than 100 miles from home when my car broke down on the freeway near Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The transmission line had come loose, spilling out all of the transmission fluid. Luckily I managed to get off the freeway and make it to a convenience store before I lost all drive to the wheels.

To make a long story short: through AAA I found a repair shop in Eau Claire that was open and that could tow my car to their shop. The repair shop discovered that when the Plymouth service shop flushed the transmission line they had neglected to clamp the line back in place. They put a clamp on, refilled the fluid, and I was back on the road within two hours of the breakdown, which in itself was an amazing feat which in the days before cell phones would hardly be possible.

Of course my breakdown story got great “mileage” with all my friends and family members I visited during the trip. Everyone was outraged on my behalf that my attempt to do the safe, cautious thing and have my car thoroughly serviced before the trip would actually turn out to be the cause of the breakdown. All were equally adamant that I call them as soon as I returned and get them to reimburse me for the cost of the repairs, at a minimum.

Their reaction was more than just concern over the money and inconvenience I was put through due to the faulty service work done. The incident evoked in everyone the universal antagonism of consumer against vendor, an antagonism that is only slightly less strident than that between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or between the English and the French. Everyone has at one time felt cheated, ill-served and oververcharged by commercial providers of one sort or another, and such feelings of injustice go beyond the monetary considerations involved. Bad customer service is a status crime, an insult against the honor and dignity of the person. When a consumer feels powerless to demand satisfaction from a company for shoddy service or merchandise, he loses esteem. He loses status. His place on the great hierarchical stepladder of being is lowered. Lets call this Offended Customer Syndrome, or OCS for short.

People who suffer OCS are driven to recoup more than just monetary compensation for their loss or inconvenience. They need, in addition to that, to obtain some symbolic pound of flesh from the offending company, either in the form of some additional compensatory reward or in the form of having to suffer an angry, denigrating and insulting harangue which will leave neither the offending company representative or any third party observers unclear as to where the company stands status-wise in relation to the consumer.

I’ve always tried to avoid contracting OCS as much as possible. To me it is just acceding to an additional, self-inflicted humiliation in addition to the poor service. I try to depersonalize my financial transactions as much as possible, so that my own sense of self is not dependent on how well I come out in disputes over customer service. There are those, I’ve observed, who take a totally different approach, who invest more of their own self worth in such disputes than is warranted. I’m thinking of people who call out the manager of the restaurant for even the slightest delay in service or perceived inattention on the part of the service staff. I’m also thinking of those nosy neighbors who need to know how much you paid for everything, so that they can smugly pronounce that you’ve been taken to the cleaners, whatever you paid. Of course these are people who, if you go by their own claims, never paid the asking price in their life, and who never failed to get anything but complete satisfaction for any substandard delivery of product or service.

Upon getting back from the road trip, I made the call to the service manager at the Plymouth dealership, preparing myself for whatever push-back he may give me on reparations for my additional repair bills. I needed no such preparation, as he couldn’t have been more apologetic and forthcoming with the promise to reimburse my expenses. Had I been in need of feeding my OCS condition with a heated back-and-forth expletive-filled exchange, I couldn’t have felt more robbed of my thunder.

In addition to the great strides that producers of goods have made across the board in the quality of their products, competition has driven companies to make outstanding customer service a bare minimum requirement for doing business, and not a differentiating value-add for premium product lines. Will this have the effect of making OCS, like the plague, an affliction of the past, or will human nature merely adjust to the shifting of the playing field by increasing the expectation for service to unheard of levels? Can people do without the ego-gratifying compulsion to complain?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Yeah, Right. Tell Us Another.

Russia says new ICBM can beat any system

Associated Press
Wed May 30, 2007

MOSCOW - Russia tested new missiles Tuesday that [First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov] boasted could penetrate any defense system. [...]

"As of today, Russia has new tactical and strategic complexes that are capable of overcoming any existing or future missile defense systems," Ivanov said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. "So in terms of defense and security, Russians can look calmly to the country's future."

Ivanov is a former defense minister seen as a potential Kremlin favorite to succeed Putin next year. Both he and Putin have said repeatedly that Russia would continue to improve its nuclear arsenals and respond to U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic — NATO nations that were in Moscow's front yard during the Cold War as Warsaw Pact members.

Russia has bristled at the plans. [...]

The ICBM, called the RS-24, was fired from a mobile launcher at the Plesetsk launch site in northwestern Russia. Its test warhead landed on target some 3,400 miles away on the Far Eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, the Strategic Missile Forces said in a statement...

Pure hyperbolic rubbish, although I understand the Kremlin's need to reassure some elements of the Russian population that Russia can still swagger on the world stage.

Further, the new missile no doubt can penetrate the existing ballistic missile defense system - but likely not always, nor any better than previous missiles. The current missile shield is a better-than-nothing partial defense.

But nobody else has even that limited capability, and the boast about how Russia will be able to "overcome any future missile defense systems" is laughable. The current system is analogous to the American "Atlas" ICBMs of the 60s. Those were failure-prone and barely adequate.

But we got better at making ICBMs, and we'll most-certainly get better now at stopping them.

Finally, if Russia's new missile did indeed fly 3,400 miles and land on-target, and is capable of MIRV-ing, (as is stated in the full article), then Russia can legitimately swagger a bit, since those are performance hallmarks of a superpower, and are well beyond the capabilities of wanna-be's such as Iran and No. Korea.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

It's Hypocrisy by a furlong

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The state with nation's last operating horse slaughterhouse made it illegal to kill the animals for human consumption on Thursday.

But we are okay with putting Old Paint down if it is to make more Elmers?

And cow, sheep, and pig slaughterhouses are still open why?

Appleyard Knocks Another One Out of the Park

Monday, May 28, 2007

Fantasy International

Amnesty International has published their report of the state of human rights for 2006. As usual the pretentious scolds at AI are obsessed with painting the US and Israel as the Great and Little Satan of human rights abuses, while ignoring or downplaying the most egregious offenders in the world community. To introduce a year of human rights horrors AI uses the story of the poor, pitiful Palestinian farmer who has to traverse Israeli army checkpoints to tend to his farm:

On 10 December 2006, while the world celebrated International Human ights Day, I was in Jayyus on the West Bank. The small village is now divided by the Wall – or more accurately a high iron fence. Built in defiance of international law, and ostensibly to make Israel more secure, the Wall’s main effect has been to cut off the local Palestinian population from their citrus groves and olive orchards. A once prosperous farming community is now impoverished. “Every day I have to suffer the humiliation of checkpoints, petty obstructions and new restrictions that stop me from getting to my orchard on the other side. If I cannot cultivate my olives, how will I survive?” cried one angry Palestinian farmer.
As I listened to him, I could see in the distance the neat red roofs and white walls of a large and prosperous Israeli settlement. I wondered if those who lived there believed that a Wall threatening the future of their neighbours could truly enhance their security.

Let's go over the sequence of events. Israel offers peace deal to Yasser Arafat. Arafat refuses to make peace, calls for Intifada. Palestinian suicide bombers kill hundreds of Israelis, and make life miserable for the rest. Israel builds a security fence. Suicide bombings stop. I'd say that the Israelis have a very good case for believing that the wall enhances their security.
The AI report is shot through with such exercises in moral equivalence. No attempt is made to assess the relative culpability of political actors or governments in causing or sustaining conflicts, all parties are equally guilty. Guilty of what? What does AI see as the number one crime against humanity in 2006? Is it the targeting of noncombatants for indiscriminate slaughter? Ethnic cleansing? The brutalization of women by thuggish theocrats? No, it is the promotion of Fear:

In 1941, US President Franklin Roosevelt laid out his vision of a new world order founded on “four freedoms”: freedom of speech and of religion; freedom from fear and from want. He provided inspirational leadership that overcame doubt and unified people. Today far too many leaders are trampling freedom and trumpeting an ever-widening range of fears: fear of being swamped by migrants; fear of “the other” and of losing one’s identity; fear of being blown up by terrorists; fear of “rogue states” with weapons of mass destruction.
Fear thrives on myopic and cowardly leadership. There are indeed many real causes of fear but the approach being taken by many world leaders is short-sighted, promulgating policies and strategies that erode the rule of law and human rights, increase inequalities, feed racism and xenophobia, divide and damage communities, and sow the seeds for violence and more conflict.
History shows that it is not through fear but through hope and optimism that progress is achieved. So, why do some leaders promote fear? Because it allows them to consolidate their own power, create false certainties and escape accountability

But isn't the AI report itself an exercise in fear-mongering? Why are they trying to get us so alarmed and exercised about Palestinian farmers? When fear is prompted by real acts of agression, fear is not only justified but expected of any sane, responsible populace. Do the AI activists want us to supress our fear response in the face of atrocities perpetrated against us? May as well ask us to repress our gag refles or our blink reflex. Fear is what keeps people alive. The AI fantasists would have us believe that real threats to our well being don't exist, that we only manufacture them through our fears. Tell that to the widows and orphans of 9/11.
The AI report is full of such New Age, Kung-Fu pacifist goo packaged as serious moral concern. Nowhere do the authors of the report make a serious attempt to identify actual perpetrators of human rights abuses. No names are named, only the countries where these abuses occur. It makes no differentiation between the purposes motivating the actions that are allegedly abuses of human rights, whether those actions are legitimiately in defense of the security of a free people, or whether they are motivated by a desire to extinguish the rights and security of people. Neither do the authors make a distinction between the relative innocence or guilt of the parties whose human rights are being infringed. So the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are afforded the same status as victims as are women who are killed for advocating women's rights in Iran.
The authors perpetrate another form of moral equivalence in the report. By focusing upon this abstract idea of human rights, they are pulling together a host of personal infringements perpetrated by governments that are not all morally equal. For instance, Iran is cited five times in the report. The five instances are as follows:

1. Promoting the denial of the Holocaust
2. Placing restrictions on the use of the Internet.
3. The murder of women's advocates.
4. Compelling women to wear the veil.
5. Undermining the credibility of the UN Security Council

They do not mention the supression and murder of religious minorities, the execution of women and girls for "honor" crimes or the sponsoring of terrorist movements to destabilize the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan or Lebanon. Syria is mentioned twice in the report, for resricting the Internet and for its complicity with the US in receiving the terror suspect Maher Arar for interrogation under torture. No other mention is made of their support for terrorist cells in Iraq and Lebanon.

For all their moral handwringing, the authors of the report have no serious proposals for improving the human rights situation around the globe, only Hallmark card platitudes befitting a Miss America contestant:
One can get sucked into the fear syndrome or one can take a radically different approach: an approach based on sustainability rather than security. The term sustainability may be more familiar to development economists and environmentalists, but it is crucial too for human rights activists. A sustainable strategy promotes hope, human rights and democracy, while a security strategy addresses fears and dangers. Just as energy security is best provided through sustainable development, human security is best pursued through institutions that promote respect for human rights. Sustainability requires rejecting the Cold War tradition of each super power sponsoring its own pool of dictatorships and abusive regimes. It means promoting principled leadership and enlightened policies. Sustainability requires strengthening the rule of law and human rights – nationally and internationally. Elections have drawn a lot of international attention, from Bolivia to Bangladesh, Chile to Liberia. But as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq have shown, creating the conditions in which people can cast their ballots is not enough. A bigger challenge is to promote good governance, including an effective legal and judicial structure, the rule of law based on human rights, a free press and a vibrant civil society.

You got that? Make nice, and all will be good.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pity the Poor Future-foes of the Developed World

Can cyborg moths bring down terrorists?

By Jonathan Richards
Times Online
May 24, 2007

At some point in the not too distant future, a moth will take flight in the hills of northern Pakistan, and flap towards a suspected terrorist training camp.
But this will be no ordinary moth.

Inside it will be a computer chip that was implanted when the creature was still a pupa, in the cocoon, meaning that the moth’s entire nervous system can be controlled remotely. The moth will thus be capable of landing in the camp without arousing suspicion, all the while beaming video and other information back to its masters via what its developers refer to as a “reliable tissue-machine interface.”

The creation of insects whose flesh grows around computer parts – known from science fiction as ‘cyborgs’ – has been described as one of the most ambitious robotics projects ever conceived by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the research and development arm of the US Department of Defense.

Rod Brooks, director of the computer science and artificial intelligence lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is involved with the research, said that robotics was increasingly at the forefront of US military research, and that the remote-controlled moths, described by DARPA as Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, or MEMS, were one of a number of technologies soon to be deployed in combat zones.

“This is going to happen," said Mr Brooks. "It’s not science like developing the nuclear bomb, which costs billions of dollars. It can be done relatively cheaply.”
“Moths are creatures that need little food and can fly all kinds of places," he continued. "A bunch of experiments have been done over the past couple of years where simple animals, such as rats and cockroaches, have been operated on and driven by joysticks, but this is the first time where the chip has been injected in the pupa stage and ‘grown’ inside it.
“Once the moth hatches, machine learning is used to control it.”

Mr Brooks, who has worked on robotic technology for more than 30 years and whose company iRobot already supplies the US military with robots that defuse explosive devices laid by insurgents, said that the military would be increasingly reliant on ‘semi-autonomous’ devices, including ones which could fire.
“The DoD has said it wants one third of all missions to be unmanned by 2015, and there’s no doubt their things will become weaponised, so the question comes: should they given targeting authority?

“The prevailing view in the army at the moment seems to be that they shouldn’t, but perhaps it’s time to consider updating treaties like the Geneva Convention to include clauses which regulate their use.”

Debates such as those over stem cell research would “pale in comparison” to the increasingly blurred distinction between creatures – including humans – and machines, Mr Brooks, told an audience at the University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science.

“Biological engineering is coming. There are already more than 100,000 people with cochlear implants, which have a direct neural connection, and chips are being inserted in people’s retinas to combat macular degeneration. By the 2012 Olympics, we’re going to be dealing with systems which can aid the oxygen uptake of athletes," [he said]...

Scientists create remote-controlled pigeon

Times Online and agencies
February 27, 2007

Chinese scientists have succeeded in implanting electrodes in the brain of a pigeon to control the bird’s flight remotely, state media have reported.

The Xinhua News Agency said scientists at the Robot Engineering Technology Research Centre at Shandong University of Science and Technology in eastern China used the micro-electrodes to command the bird to fly right or left, and up or down.
The implants stimulated different areas of the pigeon’s brain according to electronic signals sent by the scientists via computer, mirroring natural signals generated by the brain, Xinhua quoted chief scientist Su Xuecheng as saying.

It was the first such successful experiment on a pigeon in the world, said Mr Su, who conducted a similar successful experiment on mice in 2005.

The report did not specify what purpose the pigeons may perform.

More on the Aluminum to Hydrogen Process

New process generates hydrogen from aluminum alloy to run engines, fuel cells

A Purdue University engineer has developed a method that uses an aluminum alloy to extract hydrogen from water for running fuel cells or internal combustion engines, and the technique could be used to replace gasoline.

The method makes it unnecessary to store or transport hydrogen - two major challenges in creating a hydrogen economy, said Jerry Woodall, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue, [and 2001 National Medal of Technology awardee], who invented the process.

"The hydrogen is generated on demand, so you only produce as much as you need when you need it," said Woodall, who presented research findings detailing how the system works during a recent energy symposium at Purdue. [...]

"When water is added to the pellets, the aluminum in the solid alloy reacts because it has a strong attraction to the oxygen in the water," Woodall said.

This reaction splits the oxygen and hydrogen contained in water, releasing hydrogen in the process.

The gallium is critical to the process because it hinders the formation of a skin normally created on aluminum's surface after oxidation. This skin usually prevents oxygen from reacting with aluminum, acting as a barrier. Preventing the skin's formation allows the reaction to continue until all of the aluminum is used.

The Purdue Research Foundation holds title to the primary patent, which has been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and is pending. An Indiana startup company, AlGalCo LLC., has received a license for the exclusive right to commercialize the process. [...]

"Gallium is critical because it melts at low temperature and readily dissolves aluminum, and it renders the aluminum in the solid pellets reactive with water. This was a totally surprising discovery, since it is well known that pure solid aluminum does not readily react with water," [explains Woodall].

The waste products are gallium and aluminum oxide, also called alumina. Combusting hydrogen in an engine produces only water as waste.

"No toxic fumes are produced," Woodall said. "It's important to note that the gallium doesn't react, so it doesn't get used up and can be recycled over and over again. The reason this is so important is because gallium is currently a lot more expensive than aluminum. Hopefully, if this process is widely adopted, the gallium industry will respond by producing large quantities of the low-grade gallium required for our process. Currently, nearly all gallium is of high purity and used almost exclusively by the semiconductor industry."

Woodall said that because the technology makes it possible to use hydrogen instead of gasoline to run internal combustion engines it could be used for cars and trucks. In order for the technology to be economically competitive with gasoline, however, the cost of recycling aluminum oxide must be reduced, he said.

"Right now it costs more than $1 a pound to buy aluminum, and, at that price, you can't deliver a product at the equivalent of $3 per gallon of gasoline," Woodall said.

However, the cost of aluminum could be reduced by recycling it from the alumina using a process called fused salt electrolysis. The aluminum could be produced at competitive prices if the recycling process were carried out with electricity generated by a nuclear power plant or windmills. Because the electricity would not need to be distributed on the power grid, it would be less costly than power produced by plants connected to the grid, and the generators could be located in remote locations, which would be particularly important for a nuclear reactor to ease political and social concerns, Woodall said.

"The cost of making on-site electricity is much lower if you don't have to distribute it," Woodall said.

The approach could enable the United States to replace gasoline for transportation purposes, reducing pollution and the nation's dependence on foreign oil. If hydrogen fuel cells are perfected for cars and trucks in the future, the same hydrogen-producing method could be used to power them, he said.

"We call this the aluminum-enabling hydrogen economy," Woodall said. "It's a simple matter to convert ordinary internal combustion engines to run on hydrogen. All you have to do is replace the gasoline fuel injector with a hydrogen injector."

Even at the current cost of aluminum, however, the method would be economically competitive with gasoline if the hydrogen were used to run future fuel cells.

"Using pure hydrogen, fuel cell systems run at an overall efficiency of 75 percent, compared to 40 percent using hydrogen extracted from fossil fuels and with 25 percent for internal combustion engines," Woodall said. "Therefore, when and if fuel cells become economically viable, our method would compete with gasoline at $3 per gallon even if aluminum costs more than a dollar per pound."

The hydrogen-generating technology paired with advanced fuel cells also represents a potential future method for replacing lead-acid batteries in applications such as golf carts, electric wheel chairs and hybrid cars, he said. [...]

The concept could eliminate major hurdles related to developing a hydrogen economy. Replacing gasoline with hydrogen for transportation purposes would require the production of huge quantities of hydrogen, and the hydrogen gas would then have to be transported to filling stations. Transporting hydrogen is expensive because it is a "non-ideal gas," meaning storage tanks contain less hydrogen than other gases.

"If I can economically make hydrogen on demand, however, I don't have to store and transport it, which solves a significant problem," Woodall said.

Source: Purdue University

And, They're Almost All Leftists, Just Like Hollywood. And the Same Thing Happens to Washed-up Hollywood Types.

Fashion has a rotten heart

India Knight
From The Sunday Times
May 13, 2007

How vile the fashion industry is, and how tiresome it is always to have to pretend that it is fabulous and gorgeous and somehow magical. The truth is that under the froth - the unimaginably lavish parties, the beauty and the glamour - lurks a black, rotten core. Fashion eats people up and spits them out in a way that sends shivers down your spine: no wonder so many of its former shining stars end up unhinged.

Its defenders say fashion is an industry like any other and that brutality is an inevitable feature of any business, which is true enough - except that other industries aren’t peopled by fragile, eccentric, creative people like Isabella Blow, style queen and sometime fashion director of this newspaper, who killed herself last week, aged 48, by drinking weedkiller.

Blow was a stylist of genius, championed talent, and was possessed of great generosity (as well as the most fabulous figure in London). When she saw Alexander McQueen’s first collection, for instance, she bought the lot and agitated until he received the recognition she was sure he deserved. Until then, she let him live in her basement. Fast forward, and McQueen is a global brand, a squillionaire, and Blow is, well, dead.

And the industry she worked in and felt so passionately about surely had a part to play in that. Few of the fashion superstars she created and supported with every iota of her being ever thought to express their gratitude in a palpable sense and bung a few quid her way. Blow may have been posh but she was not rich, and was positively a pauper compared with her protégés.

Friends of Blow say that although she was motivated by everything other than financial greed, even she could not fail to notice, and eventually become troubled by, the enormous discrepancy in lifestyle and income between her existence and those of her protégés, many of whom became strangely elusive once she’d made them famous.

If she’d worked in any other business, she’d have been an agent or a headhunter and taken a commission for her pains. In fashion, [sending her] next season’s coat was considered an acceptable alternative. Blow needed a salary commensurate with her talents but never found a real corporate role for herself. Even fashion is populated with bland suits at the top, and the sad truth of the matter is that a woman with bleeding lipstick and a lobster hat is never going to be taken seriously in the boardroom, no matter how great her talent.

No wonder she was depressed. And no wonder, given the milieu in which she existed, that when she checked into the Priory last year everyone gossiped like mad but hardly a fashion soul went to visit her. Her sense of abandonment is said to have contributed to her jumping off a bridge on the way home.

Blow’s story has as extreme an ending as her sartorial style, but in these circles versions of it play themselves out quietly all the time. There is a branch of Alcoholics Anonymous in London where you can’t move for fashion casualties - not something those glossy articles about so-and-so’s fabulous lifestyle ever pick up on.

Someone I know, once so hot in fashion terms that Madonna tried to pick him up on the street in LA, also found himself weeping in the Priory recently; again, you could count his visitors on one hand. Not so hot any more, you see. You have to have exceptional resources if you work in fashion and the intelligence to recognise that the world that matters so much to you may be beautiful, irresistible, alluring, but it is built on illusion and pretence.

The handful who grasp this concept or, miraculously, remain unseduced by it, do very well. Those who were fragile in the first place and came to believe that being chauffeured everywhere, having not one but three personal trainers and being sent presents and lures by fashion houses on a daily basis somehow constituted the real world come a serious cropper when it ends overnight - as end it must - and they’re back alone in their grotty flat in Clapham.

No drivers, no parties, no tables at the Ivy, no presents, no tickets to the shows - oh, and the realisation that all those people who they thought were their best friends couldn’t care less about them. After years spent living in the fantasy world, the real one can come as the most debilitating shock. [...]

Then there are the ravages brought on by drugs and drink, and the eating disorders. A famously skinny designer recently took a shine to a friend of mine; once the show was over and everyone had left, the skinny designer took my friend into a little room and proceeded literally to ram handfuls of food into his own mouth, like a slavering animal. Not so chic. [...]

I love fashion, and I love clothes, and I admire and respect many of the people who work in the fashion industry. But enough of perpetuating the delusion that this is a charmed world populated by lovely people - and, by extension, a world we all wish we had access to.

The tributes to Isabella Blow in the papers last week were well deserved, but even in those she was depicted as little more than a great eccentric and a creature of fashion. She was more than that: she was a human being with thoughts and feelings that ultimately mattered more to her than all the hats in the world. It’s an ugly story - but then, it’s an ugly business.

More Bad News for "Peak Oil" Apocalypticists

Aluminum as an Alternative Fuel Source?

By Ann Sosnowski, Editor-in-Chief, Diligent Investor, for Taipan Financial News.

[Aluminum] is already one of the most important commodities in the world economy. The metal is used heavily for building structures and transportation projects. The only other metal that exceeds its use on the global scale is iron. Not to mention [that aluminum is] the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust.

Scientists at Purdue University in Indiana have found that when aluminum is doused with water, hydrogen is produced “on demand,” so you only get what you want when you need it. Simply, there’s no waste.

The current system of producing hydrogen from the reaction between aluminum and H20 can be used to power chainsaws, lawnmowers and other smaller mechanical objects. But the researchers are working on a way to use it in automobiles and other types of transportation.

The main catalyst for the aluminum-to-hydrogen equation is gallium, which keeps a protective “skin” from growing on aluminum pellets, allowing the reaction to occur.

The reaction is not only waste-free, but it’s also toxin-free.

Analysts have estimated that the hydrogen from this aluminum-water-gallium reaction would retail at about $3 per gasoline-gallon equivalent, a little less than gasoline prices today.

This is an alternative fuel story well worth following. This “on-demand” fuel could give ethanol-based and electric cars a run for their money in the future...

Speaking of "the housing market in Britain [being] overvalued by up to 65%"

Bond Market Speaks Volumes about Recession Risks Ahead

First this anomaly hit the United Kingdom, then the United States, Australia, New Zealand and now, Canada.

It's known as a "yield-curve inversion." It happens in the bond market when short-term interest rates (or yields) move higher than long-term rates, which is NOT the norm.

Typically, bonds with longer dated maturities carry higher rates of interest than short-term notes or bonds. That's because time is money ! You take on more risk holding long-term bonds, because it takes more time to collect all those interest payments and get your principal paid back at maturity.

An inverted yield curve like we have right now is an unusual, and a potentially troubling situation; pointing to economic weakness ahead. In fact, this anomaly has been an accurate barometer forecasting economic recessions since WWII. In all but one instance over the last 60 years, an inverted yield curve has correctly forecasted [sic] a coming recession.

Now, several Anglo-Saxon economies, which tend to historically march to the same economic drum, are in the midst of yield-curve inversion. The latest victim is Canada.

The Canadian yield-curve recently became inverted as short-term and long-term interest rates converged for this first time in this economic expansion.

Indeed, it's been a great ride for Canadian stocks and the Canadian dollar over the last four years. Economic growth has boomed, budget surpluses have swelled and the country has reduced its external debt. But if the economy is so red-hot, why are Canadian bonds inverting? Benchmark two-year Canadian government bonds now yield 4.23% versus only 4.22% for 10-year bonds.

The same phenomenon has already occurred in the United Kingdom since last year. Benchmark ten-year British gilts now yield an effective 5.13% compared to 5.57% for two-year gilts.

In Australia, two-year debt yields 6.23% compared to 5.91% for 10-year bonds. And in New Zealand, two-year bonds fetch 7% versus 6.16% for 10-year debt.

It's possible these yield-curve inversions are happening because of the booming financial markets around the world, with increased cross-border capital flows. All these investment assets are seeking a home in fixed-income securities, including government debt, which drives bond yields down.

Also, with high-risk bonds like junk debt and emerging market bonds yielding the lowest spreads over government bonds in history, pension funds are probably another factor driving government bond yields down as they seek relative safety and yield.

Another observation partially explaining the yield-inversion phenomenon is strong currencies in most countries.

With the exception of the United States since 2002, strong currencies tend to import deflation. That's the case in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and even the United Kingdom, which complains inflation is too high. And in reality, British [inflation] is historically low. A strong currency attracts international fund flows, driving the currency higher and compressing bond yields. That's another possibility for the yield-curve inversion.

But it's not just the English-speaking economies that harbor yield-curve inversion and recession risk.

Germany, Europe's largest economy, is in the midst of its strongest economic expansion this decade. And right now, Germany is just five basis points (0.05%) away from yield inversion. Other members of the euro-zone naturally harbor the same interest-rate fundamentals and are also close to inversion. [...]

Right now, bonds are warning of economic recession in the United States and throughout most of the G-7, except Japan. If bonds are right, we're at the cusp of a recession later this year, which implies increased stock market risk too. That's what bonds are saying now.

By Eric Roseman, editor of Commodity Trend Alert and Global Mutual Fund Investor, for the Sovereign Society.

Here's a Hint: Move

Which also applies to people who own homes in So. California, and was especially true in '05 & '06, before the market peaked there.

Hell is buying a house

By India Knight
From The Sunday Times
May 27, 2007

[All emphasis added]
I’ve never understood the point of giving, or leaving, one’s adult, able-bodied, intellectually capable children masses of money.

People in late middle age have hopefully earned their own living for several decades and don’t have the urgent need for an injection of cash that young people do.

My notion was that I would buy my children a small flat each when they became adults and that would be that - they could put their back-breakingly expensive education to use for the rest and be grateful.

This idea, always boldly optimistic given the chaotic state of my finances, now seems more hilariously improbable by the day: who on earth can afford to buy any kind of property in London? At the rate things are going, they’d be lucky to get a shed each - or, more realistically, their own shelf in a communal shed.

Last week Knight Frank, the chartered surveyor, said London house prices rose by more than 33% in the 12 months to the end of April - the fastest rate of growth since mid-1979. A house worth £100,000 in 1976 would now be worth more than £4.1m.

Data from Knight Frank also revealed that the supply of available property fell by more than 50% in the first quarter of this year, while the number of prospective new purchasers increased by 17%.

What with super-rich foreign buyers and City bonuses, the property market has gone mad, madder even than it was in the 1980s, so mad that there’s nothing anyone can do about it except throw up their hands in despair and wait for the crash that’s been predicted for a couple of years now but shows no sign of arriving, even though Jon Hunt, the founder and owner of the aggressive estate agency chain Foxtons, sold out last week for an estimated £390m.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has warned that UK property prices are among the most stretched of any major world economy, and that the housing market in Britain is overvalued by up to 65%. Surely something’s got to give because how - and where - are people supposed to live?

You have [owners] on the one hand, beside themselves with joy to discover that their unexceptional house in an unexceptional area is now worth a monstrous sum.

But this doesn’t mean anything in real, rather than paper, terms, because property prices rise commensurately across the board, and the numbers are now so elevated that they become meaningless - like hedge-fund managers’ bonuses, we’re talking what for most people is unimaginable, joke money.

If your family house is now worth £1m and you want to move to a better area and have a bit more space, your £1m is going to get you nowhere: unbelievably, if you head for the “desirable”, more family-friendly parts of London, your £1m becomes risible.

You could just about go and buy a big house in Hackney, but that’s probably not quite what most people have in mind. Which means that once you’ve finished congratulating yourself on your acumen in buying your house for a fraction of the amount it’s now worth, you have to borrow punitive amounts in order to move “up the ladder”. Which wasn’t part of the plan...

I agree with the bit about giving your kids money while they're young-ish, and not waiting to leave it to them upon your death, for the reasons given - especially since there might not be very much left, if you have a long life and health problems.

But if you're lucky enough to have a home that's somehow become worth £1m, you have more choices than to stay in the home, or sell and try to buy another home in a vastly overvalued market, which is a rather zero-sum choice.

You could also sell, and emigrate.

As in the U.S., capital gains from the sale of a primary residence are apparently tax-free in the UK. If you've owned the home for a number of years, say 5 - 10, then after paying selling costs and the mortgage, you're likely to end up with something in the vicinity of £500,000, which at today's exchange rate, is around
US$ 990,000, or $ 1,070,000 Canadian.

Either way, roughly a million dollars will set you up for life in the U.S. or Canada, UNLESS you feel the need to live in the most-popular cities of either nation.

But having travelled extensively in both nations, I can attest that there are hundreds of lovely, sophisticated, urbane, and cheap cities and towns that happily exist in "flyover country".

So you'd have basically ended your need to work for a living, and could instead devote your time to doing whatever it is that really sets your heart on fire, which is true wealth in my book.

It's a little trickier for Californians, since although they could end up being several hundred thousand dollars richer, it's far more probable that they'd need to continue to work. But still, unless your career can only be done in Cali., if you've owned for at least five years, you could sell in SoCal, and move to the Southeastern U.S., or to the Midwest. Then you could buy a comparable home free and clear with the profits, and live with the luxury of no rent or mortgage payment.

And if you're willing to live in a less-developed nation, well, then the sky's the limit. I've read that if you don't have to depend on the local economy for a living, then Argentina, India, Mexico, Panama, and Nicaragua are really cheap, and offer first-world living in the major cities. My youngest brother lived in southern Brazil for a couple of years, and he says that it's the same there: A very low cost of living by American standards, and all services available.

You could live like Royalty with what would be a middle-class income by G7 standards, and never touch your capital.

The Buried Nugget: Violent Crime in Colombia is Way Down

I am in an office with a man pointing a gun at me. He looks me in the eye and tells me: ‘I will count to three and then I will shoot you. One, two, three.’ Then he pulls the trigger

The Times
May 26, 2007
Catherine Philp in Bogotá

Journalists often say that no story is worth taking a bullet for. But today instead of an Iraq street or Afghan village, I am in the office of Miguel Caballero, the bulletproof tailor of Bogotá – and he wants to show me exactly what his products do.

“Anyone in the world can make you a bulletproof vest,” he tells me as he helps me into a beige, quilted, hunting jacket, complete with superlight inserts capable of stopping a 9 mm bullet. “But we are the only ones that make high-security fashion.”

It is perhaps not surprising that such a hybrid should have evolved in Colombia, with its historically sky-high murder and kidnapping rates and love of finely cut cloth.

Mr Caballero was a business management student at the University of Bogotá when the idea of Armani-style armour first came to him, courtesy of some wealthy friends.

“They had their own bodyguards and bulletproof vests but they would always leave them in the boot of their car because they were so heavy and ugly,” he says. “They would end up just wearing their leather jackets instead.”

So with $10, some samples of ultra-strong fibres and his own leather jacket, he started to experiment.

Fourteen years after the prototype, Mr Caballero’s company has grown into a multinational empire with a turnover of more than $5 million (£2.5 million), pumping out everything from prêt-à-porter casual wear to couture evening wear for presidents and VIPs.

His client list includes Alvaro Uribe, President of Colombia, survivor of four assassination attempts and now the owner of a whole wardrobe of made-to-measure Caballero, from formal suit jackets to white guayaberas – lightweight, tropical shirts. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s flamboyant left-wing President, has the same shirt in wine red. “It’s the only thing the two have in common,” Mr Caballero jokes.

Every one of the candidates in last year’s Mexican presidential elections had a fitting at Caballero’s and well-cut trench coats, denim jackets and buttery-soft suede bombers can be seen on dignitaries from Buenos Aires to Miami. [...]

Mr Caballero says his clients can trust their jackets with their lives because of the rigorous testing he conducts – with his employees. Everyone who works for him has been shot by him in one of the more unusual corporate rites of passage. His beleaguered lawyer has been shot four times.

The earliest tests were not an unqualified success, he admits. He shot his (former) partner with a .38, causing him severe bruising. “For 15 days he couldn’t smile, he couldn’t sit down; he couldn’t do anything,” he says ruefully. But matters have improved, he assures me as he presents the garment he would like me to try out. His choice is a quilted hunting jacket, beloved of Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia of Spain. It is a little bulky, especially on the side where he plans to shoot me, having thoughtfully added an extra layer of protection to prevent serious bruising.

It is certainly still a great deal lighter – and more stylish – than my press flak jacket back home. But will it be as effective?

Mr Caballero loads the .32 calibre pistol and counts down slowly from three, the barrel a mere eight inches from my abdomen. He shoots and I brace, or perhaps flinch. I hear the crack and feel an impact on the jacket but nothing at all on my skin, except the sensation of energy spreading outwards from where the bullet has hit. [...]

Exports are now the mainstay of Mr Caballero’s business, with more than 85 per cent of his goods sold abroad. The dramatic decline in homicides and kidnappings has caused the Colombian market to level out, [Emph. add.] but with Mexico and Venezuela vying for the world’s highest murder rates there is plenty of business there.

Last year he opened a boutique in Mexico City, between Tiffany and BMW. Russia and the Middle East both look promising, although Iraq has disappointed him. “It’s so bad there people just want military-style jackets, not fashion,” he said mournfully...

No Doubt Hillary-foes Wish that She'd had a Dozen - or None

Assuming, of course, that this is close to the truth:

How Chelsea, the 'miracle child' helped keep the marriage together

The Sunday Times
May 27, 2007
[No apparent byline]

Chelsea Clinton, from the moment of her difficult conception, was an enormous factor in keeping her parents together. [...]

Hillary had married for love, to have children and to create her idea of a model family. She felt she could figure out how to make the political part of her life work, but unless she could be a mother with a loving husband who was father to their children, life’s fulfillment would elude her.

She suffered, however, from a condition called endometriosis, which often makes conception difficult, can cause infertility and frequently results in extreme pain during and after intercourse.

From early in their marriage Hillary and Bill tried to have a child, and — famously — they even chose a name after hearing Judy Collins’s version of the song Chelsea Morning on a Christmas holiday in London in 1978.

Still unsuccessful after four years, they decided in the summer of 1979 to see a fertility specialist; but before the appointment Hillary found she was pregnant. [...]

They frequently referred to Chelsea as their “miracle child”. Hillary took four months’ maternity leave from her job as a lawyer and was sensitive to any criticism that she skimped as a mother. [...]

Friends of the Clintons were aware of her disappointment at not being able to have a second child. Even during their early years in the White House she and Bill talked seriously about adopting, and they discussed with friends in California who had adopted how they might go about the process themselves.

At the age of 48, Hillary raised the subject in an interview with a Time magazine reporter, saying: “I must say, we’re hoping to have another child.”

When the stunned journalist asked if she meant by natural birth, she added: “I have to tell you I would be surprised but not disappointed. My friends would be appalled, I’m sure.” [...]

Friday, May 25, 2007

So What's the Problem? (Or, If It Ain't Broke...)

Utah still last in per-student spending
By Nicole Stricker
The Salt Lake Tribune

[The] Census Bureau analysis of state education funding differs slightly from data from the National Center of Education Statistics released in April. Yet both reports list Utah as last in the nation for spending $5,257 per student in fiscal year 2005. The second-to-last state, Arizona, spent $6,261 per student that year. [...]

Members of the Utah State Board of Education, legislators and tax watchdogs say it's nearly impossible for Utah to rival spending in other states. Income taxes from Utah's relatively small and low-paid workforce get stretched paying for the state's large population of school children.

The nation spent an average of $8,701 per student in 2005, up 5 percent from the previous year, the Census Bureau reported. New York topped the list, spending $14,119 per student in 2005. New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; Vermont; and Connecticut rounded out the top five.

Idaho, Mississippi and Oklahoma joined Utah and Arizona at the bottom of the list.

This isn't definitive, but it's suggestive:

According to Inc., the national average SAT score in 2006 was 1,518. (State-by-state SAT score rankings)

The 2006 average SAT score in the state that spent the least money per pupil, Utah: 1,667, 18th in the nation.

The 2006 average SAT score in the state that spent the most money per pupil, New York: 1,486, 43rd in the nation.

In fact, EVERY ONE of the five states that spent the least per pupil had average SAT scores that were higher than the national average, and EVERY ONE of the four states mentioned as spending the most per pupil had average SAT scores that were lower than those of ANY of the "least spending" states.

Now, it should be noted that all of the "most spending" states (and district) are high-cost-of-living areas, and all of the "least spending" states are fairly-to-greatly low-cost-of-living areas. That obviously factors in.

But even when comparing the second-least-spending state, Arizona, to the bottom-dwelling Utah, we find that Arizona's average SAT score was 26th in the nation, at 1,556 - 8% lower than Utah's average score.

So clearly, we in Utah are getting a great value for our education dollars, and based on the actual, real-world results of states that steer absurd amounts of tax dollars to the education industry, spending more would be very unlikely to result in any significant increases in educational attainment by Utah's great schoolchildren.

A Sad, Sad Commentary on the Youth of Today

Congressman chases down pick-pocket

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressman chased and caught a man who picked the lawmaker's pocket on Thursday night in Washington's tiny Georgetown neighborhood, a local television station reported.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen a [seven-term] New Jersey Republican, was walking in the area when a group of young men came up behind him. Frelinghuysen felt someone grab at his wallet and when he turned, the would-be robber took off, WRC TV reports.

Frelinghuysen, 61, gave chase and caught the suspect a short distance away. Two passing police officers saw the chase and arrested the 18-year-old suspect, the report said...

Now, far be it from me to wish success to criminals, but if you're 18, and get chased down and subdued by a senior citizen, then you might want to get more exercise. (And maybe put a bag over your head, to hide your humiliated face).

Bold Move by a Failing Icon

GM dealers offer Toyota test drives

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, staff writer
May 25, 2007

NEW YORK ( -- If you want to test drive a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, starting next month you'll be able to do it at a Saturn dealership. General Motors is asking Saturn dealers to have one or more of the competing models in the showroom so customers can look at it, sit in it and drive it. [...]

"In that side-by-side comparison, we come out really well," said Mark LaNeve, head of North American sales and marketing for General Motors.

Later this year, Chevrolet dealers will be doing the same thing as they introduce customers to the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu, which shares its engineering platform with the Aura.

In focus group research, GM has shown potential customers new GM models next to competing vehicles with all brand identifications removed and, said LaNeve, customers have reacted well to the GM products. [...]

According to industry newspaper Automotive News, sales for the Saturn Aura, which was voted Car of the Year by automotive journalists in January, 2007, have been disappointing for GM.

Part of the reason GM is willing to take this step, said LaNeve, is because the company has little to lose. Midsized sedan shoppers often don't even consider GM products, he said, instead going straight to Honda and Toyota dealers.

The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are now the two best-selling cars in America. [...]

The company wouldn't even consider doing something like this with its SUVs, said LaNeve. GM currently holds about a 70 percent market share in large SUVs, so there would be little to gain from bringing Toyota Sequoias into Chevrolet dealerships to compare to the Tahoe.

Quotas Can Be Good II

Elections test Spain's new gender-parity law

By Lisa Abend Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
Susan Sachs contributed reporting from Paris
May 25, 2007

Madrid-In the Spanish coastal town of Tossa de Mar on the Mediterranean, women have long run the public administration while the men were off at sea. But it's a rarity here in Spain, where less than a third of municipal office-holders are women.

The new Law of Equality is expected to change all that, bringing an estimated 7,000 women into local offices in Sunday's municipal and regional elections.

Passed in April to rectify persistent gender inequalities, [...] its most controversial provision requires political parties to present electoral lists in which neither sex holds more than 60 percent of the slots.

The law makes Spain one of the most progressive countries on gender representation. But as other countries have discovered, true political equality may not be guaranteed: what looks good on paper can be hard to implement in practice.

Nearly 100 countries impose some form of gender quota on political representation. But only a few have achieved approximate parity: Rwanda, Sweden, and Finland (see chart).

France's parity law has significantly improved representation at the local level since it was passed in 2000: In towns with populations of 3,500 or more, the percentage of women elected to city council seats rose from 25.7 in 1995 to 46.4 by 2006.

But at the national level it's had little effect: the number of female deputies rose from 10.9 percent before the law to just 12.3 percent in 2002, when parliamentary elections were last held.

French political parties, which fill allotted parliamentary seats beginning with those at the top of party lists, have gotten around the law by putting women at the bottom of their lists. Or they simply accept the financial consequences of noncompliance. [...]

More important, says [Anne Maria Holli, a political scientist at the University of Helsinki], is the effect on mind-sets that quotas can have. "Eventually, people start to think it's normal to have both sexes in government."

That's key for Spain, says Maribel Montaño, Secretary of Equality for the Socialist Party, who acknowledges that the law won't solve everything. "The law by itself isn't going to change mentalities," she says. "We've lived with machismo for so many centuries that we're not going to get rid of it quickly." [...]

Not everyone is happy about the law. The opposition Popular Party declared it unconstitutional. And on websites like, men have complained about the quota as "Taliban feminism." [Cry me a river. After centuries of "Taliban masculinism", (OK, that's redundant), you're admitting that you're scared of competing with girls ? - M.H.]

One of the groups least happy with the new law is the Popular Party's electoral slate for the Canary Islands town of Garachico. All of the candidates on the list are female, but because the legislation says that no gender can hold more than 60 percent of the spots, the Garachico slate looks to be illegal...

Quotas Boost Women Pols
[Or, France is a Soup Sandwich, and has been for a Very Long Time]

Gail Russell Chaddock
The Christian Science Monitor
Archives: from the May 14, 1997 edition

[All emphasis added]
PARIS—In the May 1 election, British voters nearly doubled the representation of women in Parliament, thanks to the Labour Party's decision to field women for a quarter of all seats.

And across the Channel in France, [...] French women were not allowed to vote until 1944, and didn't win the right to work without their husband's permission until 1965. [...] [Although that's better than Spain, where women could not hold jobs without their husbands' permission until the late 70s - M.H.]

Ironically, what prompted the Labour Party to aggressively promote women in its ranks was its third defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister in British and European history.

After their 1987 loss, Labour analysts concluded that their party needed to become more "women-friendly." Women shared many of the values Labour claimed as its own, yet viewed Labour as the most masculine of all parties and voted disproportionately for Conservatives.

The solution: quotas requiring 40 percent representation of women at every level of party life. [...]

The controversial strategy helped boost the number of women Labour MPs from 39 to 101, or 93 percent of the women in Parliament. "We're hoping that more women MPs will set a different tone and emphasis in Parliament," [says Meg Russell, national women's officer for the Labour Party]. "Now we're waiting for the other parties to catch up." [...]

Scandinavian success

The Nordic nations of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have long topped the list of nations with the highest representation for women. All elect lawmakers to parliament via a system of proportional representation, which allows parties to weigh candidate lists in favor of women. Under this system, the candidate placed highest on the party list is most likely to be elected.

In Sweden, which leads the world with 40.4 percent women in parliament, the five leading political parties require that men and women alternate positions on party lists. Political parties in Norway regularly field 50 percent women candidates for national votes, either by tradition or by party rules. Finland adopted 40 percent quotas for women in 1995.

Other nations with a high percentages of women in the legislature have also adopted some form of quotas. The African National Congress Party in South Africa requires women to head a third of all lists. Argentina, Mexico, and Belgium have also made quotas compulsory for all political parties. Germany and Spain boosted parliamentary representation for women to 26.5 and 16 percent respectively through party quotas.

"Every country that has made progress on this issue has used some kind of quota system to deliver the change," says Clare Short, who helped develop the British Labour Party's strategy on women.

France lags behind
[So what's new ? - M.H.]

Unlike most of their European neighbors, Britain and France elect deputies individually, a system that forces parties to make hard choices between male incumbents and women newcomers. [...]

In France, the political will to do this has been hard to muster. As recently as March, some 75 percent of French deputies said they opposed the principle of parity between men and women in the legislature. [...]

But pollsters say that such views are lagging behind public opinion. Some 82 percent of French people in a survey last year said they favor a referendum on parity. [...]

"What makes it difficult for women in France is the system of voting and a certain Mediterranean machismo. Women have made big strides in teaching, health professions, communications, and journalism, but not yet in politics or big business," says [Roland Cayrol of the Paris-based CSA polling agency]. [...]

"It's been tough to increase the number of women candidates, because we have so many incumbents who are men. They have been loyal, so we can't just tell them they can't run. But you'll see many more conservative women in next year's regional elections, where the RPR is committed to 30 percent women," says [Anne-Marie Couderc, the Rally for the Republic Party (RPR) minister in charge of women's rights].

Florida Passes a "We ♥ Hillary" Law

An uproar over '08 primary calendar

By Linda Feldmann
The Christian Science Monitor
May 25, 2007

[All emphasis added]
Washington - [The] latest bombshell is Florida's decision to move up its 2008 primaries from March to Jan. 29, signed into law on Monday by Gov. Charlie Crist (R). That maneuver – in defiance of both parties' rules for scheduling nomination contests – has set in motion a wave of speculation over whether other states will leapfrog to an early date and whether the penalties that could ensue would wind up costing a candidate the nomination.

For the still-fluid primary calendar, the result could be primaries and caucuses held in 2007. That would be a first, primaries held in the calendar year before the general election. Iowa and New Hampshire have made clear they will do whatever it takes to protect their franchise as the "firsts" – first caucus and first primary. [...]

State law requires that New Hampshire's primary be held one week before "any similar election," and analysts were already expecting New Hampshire to go earlier than Jan. 22, possibly even before the Iowa caucuses. If New Hampshire leapfrogs ahead of Iowa, then Iowa may well move its date. Iowa promises to hold its caucuses, which are smaller and more time-consuming than primaries, eight days before the New Hampshire primaries.

Florida may be just the first of many states that flout the party calendars and reschedule primaries for before Feb. 5. [...]

Now, with the front-loading trend, the importance of money is bigger than ever. If other states move up their primaries to Jan. 29, only those candidates with the biggest war chests will be able to compete in all those states. The cost of Florida's expensive media market alone could force some candidates to skip that contest.

If the parties stick to their guns and punish the candidates who campaign in states that have scheduled primaries outside the prescribed "window," that could have the result of skewing the nominations, especially for the Democrats.

Under both parties' rules, any state (except Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina) that holds its primaries or caucuses earlier than Feb. 5, 2008, will lose delegates. Candidates would also be penalized for campaigning in a state too early. On the Democratic side, half of the regular delegates would be lost, as would half of the superdelegates – members of Congress and the governor, if he or she is a Democrat. On the Republican side, the sanction is to lose half of the regular delegates. In a delegate-rich state like Florida, the loss of so many delegates could cost a candidate the nomination.

But some observers predict the problem will be solved by having the violating states schedule later caucuses that are the real nominating contests. The early primaries would, in effect, be "beauty contests." But history has shown that such early nonbinding contests are taken seriously by candidates and voters, and can still have a winnowing effect on a field of candidates. [...]

Florida opted to move up its primary to give its large, diverse state greater say in the nomination process. In the current lineup, the first four states are small and quirky. Florida is also a swing state in the general election, and advocates for Florida's early primary argue that winning that contest will provide an indication of who can do well in November 2008.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Let's Just Forget About That Silly Sunni/Shi'ite Thingie

Iran: Arabs should back nuclear program

And hey, let's also forget about the enormous cultural differences between Arabs and Persians, OK ?
Oh, and don't worry about the legacy of Persian resentment over the fall of Persia and the rise of Arab power...

It's all good.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Quotas Can Be Good

Sarkozy names 7 women to French Cabinet
By JAMEY KEATEN, with contributions by Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley, Jenny Barchfield and John Leicester in Paris
Associated Press
May 18, 2007

PARIS - [New French President Nicolas Sarkozy named his Cabinet on Friday, poaching from rival political factions and handing women a prominent role in a smaller government team tasked with reforming France and pulling it out of the economic doldrums].

Rachida Dati, a woman with North African roots, was named justice minister in France's new Cabinet on Friday, an appointment rich with symbolism that the law will be colorblind in a nation still coping with the fallout from riots across immigrant-heavy neighborhoods two years ago.

She was one of seven women that President Nicolas Sarkozy, himself of Hungarian immigrant background, appointed to his 15-member Cabinet — making good on a campaign promise of gender balance after decades where women often played secondary roles or were outnumbered by men.

Women here did not get the vote until 1944 and only 14 percent of the national legislature is female. But France now has one of the highest numbers of women ministers of any country in Europe.

Never before has a woman with family ties in France's former North African colonies been given such a high-ranking ministry, said Sarkozy spokesman Franck Louvrier.

Dati, a 41-year-old lawyer, was raised in a housing project in the winemaking Burgundy region. She is the second child in a Muslim family of 12 children from a mother with Moroccan roots and a father of Algerian background. [...]

Her appointment reached out to black and Arab immigrants and their French children who have scant regard for Sarkozy because of his tough stance on crime and immigration. As Interior Minister, he infuriated many when he described delinquents as "scum" and said that crime-ridden poor neighborhoods needed to be power-hosed clean.

"The message: if you're a woman, or have North African origins, or come from a disfavored position in society, you can still make it in France," said political analyst Dominique Moisi. [...]

While no official statistics exist because France is officially colorblind about race and religion, officials have said Muslims make up about half the prison population. France has more than 5 million Muslims whose backgrounds are most often traced to former colonies in Africa. [...]

Sarkozy also drew strong condemnation by creating a new Ministry of Immigration, Integration and National Identity to manage the inflow of immigrants and protect French values and cohesion. [...]

Sarkozy named humanitarian crusader Bernard Kouchner, a popular Socialist, as foreign minister. The defection is a blow to Socialists ahead of next month's legislative elections — and they responded by saying that they no longer considered Kouchner a member of their party.
Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe got a second life. He was given the environment portfolio — remarkable given his conviction in 2004 for a political financing scandal.

First the French-bashing: France is "officially colorblind about race and religion", but unofficially and hypocritically appointing to high position a women with North African Muslim parents is a big deal.

Women didn't get the right to vote until 1944, a full generation after American women gained that privilege, and during the occupation ???
Frenchmen wouldn't respect women until after German Nazis took over their society and forced them to do so ?
How pathetic is that ?
[Corrections thanks to Harry]

Obviously, the main way in which France is superior to America is in the area of historically-ignorant, self-deluded bloviating egotism.

(I'm tempted to say something about Alain Juppe, but people who live in glass houses ought not throw bricks - Edwin Edwards, Marion Barry... Actual quotes taken from Mayor Marion Barry).

OK, with that taken care of, I approve of the main point in the article. In America, women ought to be appointed to half of the patronage positions in government, and there should be a racial spoils system.

While that's not an optimal paradigm, it's an undeniable fact that the white male political elites in America have somehow never got around to cutting women a full slice of the pie, despite their "deep respect" for women, and despite the admirable political accomplishments of some very talented women over the past 150 years, especially since WW II.

So my position is that, since the Powers That Be seem (understandably) unwilling to share the franchise in a meaningful way, until we run out of competent women who are willing to serve, we should operate with an explicit gender quota system. And I'm fine with a racial quota system, too.

Note that this might seem to be at odds with my rejection of quotas for entrance to universities, but I think that elite schools and governments operate with different dynamics.

For one thing, if you don't get accepted to MIT, there's always Cow Collage, but there's only one government. If you're frozen out there, what's the alternative? Start a separatist movement?

Also, higher education rather ought to operate as an explicitly meritocratic system. With government, as in business and the military, "good enough" really is good enough. Once you're past a certain minimum level of competency, it often is irrelevant to fulfilling the position if you're extra-good - although being such might well help you to move up quickly.

Dark Angel*, Here We Come

New fertility laws say dads not needed to make babies
This is London magazine, from the Evening Standard

A major relaxation of IVF rules was announced by ministers today.

The changes will make it easier for single people and lesbians to receive fertility treatment on the NHS.

The move, which is part of a shake-up of laws on the use of human tissues, will also allow the creation of "Frankenstein" embryos - human and animal cells mixed together - for medical research. [British scientists have applied for permission to produce embryos that would be 99.9 per cent human and 0.1 per cent animal].

Under current laws, fertility clinics have to consider the baby's need for a father before providing treatment. But today's draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill says this is no longer necessary.

The draft legislation bans couples from choosing the gender of their child. It also tightens the law on screening embryos for diseases, a subject of heated ethical debate as it could lead to parents aborting potentially unhealthy babies and see insurance companies refusing people with a genetic illness. [...]

Other measures in the draft legislation include:

• Banning couples from choosing the gender of their baby.

• Couples in same sex civil partnerships should have equal rights as parents in traditional marriages.

• The regulation of internet sperm services.

• Tightening of laws on screening embryos for genetic diseases.

• Allow donor conceived children to find out if they have donor conceived siblings.

The Government is also recommending a change to the rules over the use of frozen sperm and the issue of withdrawal of consent.

Via Robert Roy Britt at the LiveScience blog.

Allowing single gals to get fertility treatments is good, regulating "internet sperm services", (whatever those might be), sounds like a really good idea, and mixing human and other animal (or even plant) genes is inevitable.

Allowing donor-conceived children to find out if they have donor-conceived siblings seems like it'll do more harm than good. Who cares if your biological father (or mother), whom you've never known, is also the father of other children ?
Maybe it's to make it easy to find potential tissue donors, should the need arise.

Trying to bar couples from choosing their child's gender, when using IVF, or from choosing not to bear defective children, is ludicrous. Is it the intention of the NHS to promote foreign abortions ?

* A short-lived post-apocalyptic science-fiction television show, starring Jessica Alba as a genetically-modified, part-big-cat super-soldier who rebels. I loved the opening sequence - a shabby Seattle, Alba standing on a dark Space Needle, dressed in black spandex & leather...

This is What Anarchy Looks Like

Israel hits Hamas during Gaza fighting
Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli warplanes pummeled Hamas targets Friday in a stepped-up campaign against militants firing rockets into southern Israel, while Palestinian factions battled with automatic weapons and grenades at a Gaza university.

Street battles between Fatah and Hamas remained less intense than the heavy fighting that terrorized Gaza City two days earlier, but a truce agreement late Thursday enjoyed no more success than previous cease-fires declared this week.

With the political leaders of the factions seemingly not in control of their gunmen, Hamas militiamen raised the internal strife to an ominous new level by widening their targets beyond armed rivals and seizing aides to two Fatah officials.
The infighting that began Sunday has killed more than 50 Palestinians and wounded dozens, while the death toll from Israeli attacks rose to 20 as airstrikes killed eight people Friday.

Israeli missiles came screeching down at least five times in retaliation for Hamas rocket attacks that have panicked people in southern Israel. At least 13 more militant rockets fell, wounding four Israelis in the battered town of Sderot.
Despite the escalating air campaign, a senior Israeli army officer said there were no immediate plans for a major ground offensive against rocket teams. [...]

One airstrike incinerated a minivan carrying Hamas militants and what the Israeli army described as "a large amount of weapons." Three fighters were killed and 12 people were wounded, Palestinian hospital officials said.
"We were sitting outside my grocery store when a huge explosion shook the area and a small minivan turned into a ball of fire," Jawad Dallou said. People in a nearby mourning tent also were wounded, he said.

An earlier airstrike east of Gaza City killed five Palestinians, including at least three Hamas militants, and wounded six. Israel's military said the target was a Hamas headquarters building. [...]
Hamas said the Israeli military had called the home of Ahmed Jaabari, head of Hamas' military wing, and warned his family the house would be hit. People gathered around the building to discourage an attack, he said. The Israeli military had no comment.

The fighting between Hamas and Fatah all but destroyed a power-sharing government formed two months ago in hopes of ending nearly a year of periodic clashes between the rival groups.
The latest bloodshed was touched off by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah to deploy thousands of security officers in Gaza City last week to try to restore law and order. Hamas called that a provocation because it wasn't consulted and fighting broke out Sunday. [...]

Bullets and rocket-propelled grenades flew outside Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold, as Hamas fighters battled Fatah gunmen in the nearby Foreign Ministry building. Grenades hit the office of the school president, who appealed for an immediate halt to the violence. [...]

Although Israel said it wasn't taking sides, its airstrikes made it harder for Hamas gunmen to move around, and Hamas used that fact to argue that Fatah and Israel were in collusion.
Hamas TV named three Fatah security chiefs who it said were in secret contact with "foreign" security personnel. "They are deep into treason, and we will deal with them accordingly," the broadcast said.

The TV did not specify which foreigners, but Fatah forces affiliated with Abbas have received advice and training from the U.S., which lists Hamas as a terror group for killing more than 250 Israelis in attacks over the years.
Earlier in the week, some 500 Fatah security men trained in Egypt under a U.S.-brokered deal returned to Gaza, passing through the border with Israel's permission.

Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israeli airstrikes targeted Hamas for a fifth straight day Saturday, hitting a rocket squad and two workshops in Gaza, and the defense minister warned militants who attack Israel they should be "very afraid."
But Defense Minister Amir Peretz also said now is not the time for a major Israeli ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. [...]

Days of Israeli air attacks on Hamas targets have coincided with a surge in deadly infighting between Hamas gunmen and rivals from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction. On Saturday, the two groups reached a new cease-fire deal, pledging to pull fighters off the streets and exchange hostages, officials from both sides said.

Previous truce agreements quickly collapsed in recent days, and it was not clear whether this one would hold. Failure to stanch the bloodshed would spell the end of the shaky power-sharing agreement Hamas and Fatah reached two months ago to end a previous round of internal strife. [...]

Israel launched its latest round of airstrikes on Tuesday to counter a stepped-up barrage of Hamas rockets on Israeli border towns. The militant group, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, has fired nearly 120 rockets at southern Israel since Tuesday, the military said.

On Saturday, Israel missiles slammed into a rocket squad near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, the army said.
Earlier in the day, missile strikes demolished two suspected Hamas metal workshops.
Saturday's two deaths brought to 22 the number of Palestinians killed in airstrikes in the past week.

Peretz warned militants involved in rocket operations should be "very afraid," because "it is our intention to act against Hamas."
"We are mainly focusing on sensitive locations tied to Hamas," he told Israel Radio, adding that these locations included rocket workshops. [...]
At the same time, he said Israel would not embark on a major offensive in the Gaza Strip because it had other, unspecified tools in its arsenal to use against rocket-launchers. [...]

Four rockets hit the border area Saturday, causing damage, but no injury. A day earlier, four Israelis were hurt in rocket attacks. [...]
The Israeli airstrikes have driven Hamas fighters out of their bases, prompting accusations that Israel is helping Fatah.
Peretz insisted Israel is not interfering in the internal fighting. However, he also said that "we certainly would like the moderate forces to emerge with the upper hand," a reference to Fatah. [...]

Abbas and Haniyeh, the most senior Hamas politician in Gaza, have so far failed to calm the situation, indicating they have largely lost control to the gunmen and their political patrons.

Typical Reuters headline: Israel hits Hamas targets, Gaza militants fire back.
No, dummy, as always it's "Gaza militants hit random civilian targets, Israel fires back."

Friday, May 18, 2007

Great Moments in Maudlinicity

From 1968, the Association sings "Everything That Touches You" on the Smothers Brothers show. The Association made a minor splash during the late Sixties with romantic choral ballads like "Windy" and "Cherish", but "Everything That Touches You" was my favorite cut from their album, which I played almost as often as the "Mason Williams Phonograph Album".

Saturday, May 12, 2007

On tabula rasa and tantamounts

In the lengthy Science and Religion thread on Thought Experiments, Rupe makes the following assertion about bringing children up within a religious faith:

But i agree, the force feeding of our kids with ideology before they have the ability to make up their own minds is tantamount to abuse.

This is one of Dawkins’s latest memes. Abuse is of course overstating it, but there is a sensible debate to be had somewhere here about the business of assuming that the children of Muslims must be Muslim and Catholics must beget further Catholics and so on.

Dawkins argues that we can no more justify this atttitude than we could an assumption that children should automatically be indoctrinated with their parents’ political views.

But on the other hand, children seek identity, and if parents believe in values, they will naturally want to pass them on. And it seems highly impractical to reverse the natural process of initial indoctrination followed by an embrace or rejection of the faith when the child reaches a sufficient maturity. The ease of this process of course varies enormously, but blank slates have never been a realistic proposition, have they?

Friday, May 11, 2007


"There are ten kinds of people in this world: Those who understand binary, and those who don't."

Hattip: My mother.

The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome and the Potential Downfall of American Society

This is pretty funny, and worth a full read:

The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome and the Potential Downfall Of American Society, by Mike Adams, Biology Department, Eastern Connecticut State University, The Connecticut Review, 1990: It has long been theorized that the week prior to an exam is an extremely dangerous time for the relatives of college students. [...]

The basic problem can be stated very simply: A student's grandmother is far more likely to die suddenly just before the student takes an exam, than at any other time of year. [...]

The results presented in this report provide a chilling picture and should waken the profession and the general public to a serious health and sociological problem before it is too late.

As can be seen in Table 1, when no exam is imminent the family death rate per 100 students (FDR) is low and is not related to the student's grade in the class. The effect of an upcoming exam is unambiguous. The mean FDR jumps from 0.054 with no exam, to 0.574 with a mid-term, and to 1.042 with a final, representing increases of 10 fold and 19 fold respectively. Figure 1 shows that the changes are strongly grade dependent, with correlation coefficients of 0.974 for mid-terms and 0.988 for finals. Overall, a student who is failing a class and has a final coming up is more than 50 times more likely to lose a family member than an A student not facing any exams...

Via Economist's View

Unless You're Going Into a Hard Science, or are Super-smart, Skip College

College not a necessity for all students
By Bo Hewey
Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram
May 8, 2007

[All emphasis added]
[I]f all high school students went to college, would they all get high-paying jobs upon graduation?
Despite continually hearing how the economy is changing and work in the future will demand that all employees have college degrees, the answer is no.

Based on Department of Labor Statistics, scholars Jean Anyon and Kirsten Green conclude that 77 percent of new and projected jobs will be low-paying and a meager 26 percent of these will require a college degree. In addition, of the 20 fastest-growing occupations, only six require college degrees.

Dennis Redovich of the Center for the Study of Jobs and Education points out that 53 percent of jobs of the future -- employing 81 percent of all workers -- will be low- or average-paying jobs. Of all of the jobs projected for the year 2014, only 21 percent will require a bachelor's degree.
Meanwhile, in 2003 about 32 percent of the workforce had bachelor's degrees,
which explains why many college graduates end up underemployed.

This is particularly true of graduates who do not attend high-status private colleges and universities.
Stanley Aronowitz found that a full 75 percent of graduates of lower-tier colleges end up in working-class jobs.

Knowing these statistics, does it make sense to be encouraging large numbers of students to attend college when their future employment opportunities will likely not match their educational credentials?

[A] recent article noted that two-thirds of the jobs being created in the fastest-growing sectors require some education beyond high school. Though this may be true, it does not negate the above statistics.
A small number of jobs may be growing quickly, but these jobs continue to be a very small proportion of overall employment...

If a young person of average drive and intellignce attends State U., maybe even living at home if in a large urban area, or attends a nearby Community College for a couple of years before transferring to the U., then it probably makes financial sense for them to go to school.

But graduating with a Liberal Arts degree and $ 60,000 in student loans makes little sense.

Trade or vocational school is much cheaper and faster, and there are plenty of fields like auto mechanics, surgical techs, computer techs, or even the culinary arts, where a young person could be making $ 30,000/yr two years after graduating high school. (Or 40K if they live on the West Coast or in the Nor'east).

Nice Idea. Now Lower the Price by 75%.

New 'green' jeans to hit the shelves
11 October 2006
Daily Mail

For the first time since [Levi Strauss] started making trousers for cowboys more than 100 years ago, the famous clothing company is bringing out a pair of "sustainable" jeans to satisfy environmentalists.

The cotton is organic, the button on the waistband is made of coconut shell, there are no metal rivets, the dye is from natural compounds include indigo and the label is from recycled cardboard.
As the factory is in Hungary, the cotton will come from Turkey, the nearest available source, and other materials will come from Europe too, to cut down on long distant transport and associated fuel costs.

Not that it will stop the trendy trousers from having a hefty price tag, at least to start off with. According to reports the first pairs in the US will sell for 250 dollars each, around £140 here.
But there are also plans to steadily bring the prices down as the company introduces organic versions for as little as £40-60.

Levi's Eco, as they will be called when they launch in November, is the US company's response to growing pressure from the green lobby.
A spokeswoman said: "When you wear them, you can honestly say that you are making a small contribution to a better world." [Or at least to Levi's bottom line - M.H.]

You Nguyen, Levi's senior vice president added: "There is clearly a trend towards organic and environmentally responsible products.
"With Levi's eco jeans, we are reaching out to fashion-conscious consumers interested in high-quality products that demand less from the environment."

The dye does not use any chemicals but instead is made from a process involving natural indigo, potato starch, mimosa flower and Marseille soap...

Even the "lower priced" organic versions will cost $ 75, which is three times more than I've ever paid for a pair of jeans. If Levi's can get them to retail for $ 50 or less, then I'll take a look.

But really, all of my clothing purchases "make a small contribution to a better world". They're either used, which theoretically means that the world is saved from having to make me a new one, or a fraction of the purchase price of those that I buy new goes towards preventing a Chinese person from starving.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


This story, sufficiently distant from April 1st to largely relieve the concern of beoming an absurdist joke's unwitting victim, simultaneously completely confirms and contradicts both Oro and Peter:
Real, or fake? Never mind the busty woman walking her dog in the park - it may just be her pooch who's sporting implants.

Some pet owners who neuter their male dogs are opting for a surgical procedure meant to make Fido feel like he's back in the good ol' days B.C. - Before Castration.

Neuticles - testicular implants for dogs that look and feel like the real thing - are said to boost a pet's self-esteem by replacing what was lost. It's a procedure that's becoming increasingly popular in New York.

The. Stupidest. Idea. Ever.

And quite possibly another sign of the coming discombobulation.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

On Satisfaction, and Competitiveness

Survey of 2,509 Americans in middle management and above, 25 years and older, conducted by Beta Research Corp. for BusinessWeek during July 13 - 17, 2006, using an online panel. Margin of error is plus/minus 2%.

Which of the following would make you happier:

You get a $ 10,000 bonus, and it's the biggest bonus in your
group - 40%
You get a $ 20,000 bonus, but it's the smallest bonus in your group - 59%

How competitive do you consider yourself to be ?

I eat nails for breakfast - Women, 3%; Men, 11%
I would eat nails for breakfast, if I thought that it would make

me CEO - Women, 18%; Men, 24%
I don't even want to think about eating nails - Women, 79%;

Men, 65%

Workers aged 25 - 34 who agree that it's a good idea to fire the worst-performing tenth of workers each
year: 45%.

All it Takes is a Couple Hundred Bad Apples

From the Associated Press:

Since January 2000, Adam "Pacman" Jones' attorneys count at least 283 NFL players who have been arrested or charged for offenses ranging from drunken driving to domestic violence to weapons possession.

Unlike Jones, none was suspended a full season for personal conduct, a punishment that his attorneys, who are preparing an appeal for the banned Titans cornerback, say was "unprecedented in its severity."

Which was a consequence of a recent NFL inner-sanctum (aka, that around which all else revolves) meeting:

"Two hundred eighty one or two is one thing; but at two hundred eighty three, we have run out of patience (aka, are starting to look bad, even to football fans)."