And I'll throw in the sphinx:
Actor and director Mel Gibson, whose last movie about Jesus was filmed totally in ancient Aramaic, is working on a new movie about an ancient civilization -- and this one, set about 3,000 years ago, features dialogue spoken in an obscure Mayan dialect. The movie, called Apocalypto, which Mr. Gibson has called "an action adventure of mythic proportions," is being filmed in Mexico, and the actor has promised to donate the sets -- including six replica pyramids and several recreated villages -- to the Mexican state of Veracruz when filming ends. That Mel -- what a guy.
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Another roo on the barbie:
Everyone knows that veal is really baby cow, and that chicken is known (to the upper classes at least) as poultry. And no one talks about eating pig -- everyone says ham or pork. As for human flesh, that question has yet to be answered (see the cannibal flesh donor comments below for further discussion). So what do you call kangaroo? That's not an issue Canadians have to wrestle with, but Australia is quite concerned about it. The antipodean country has been trying to market kangaroo meat to restaurants and consumers (in part because it is overrun by more than 57 million of the jumpy beasts), but it needs a friendly name. It seems people don't like eating it because they have to order kangaroo, and then they get images of that cute little baby 'roo from Winnie the Pooh or whatever, and there goes another order. Feel like suggesting something? Head on over to www.foodcompanion.com.
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More dilithium crystals, perhaps?:
Many fans of deceased Star Trek actor James "Scotty" Doohan (who was born in Vancouver) thought it was fitting that his ashes were to be shot into space aboard a rocket. Unfortunately, the rocket that Space Services Inc. was planning to use for the trip seems to need the help of a wise old engineer like Mr. Scott: the company, which blasts people's remains into orbit in canisters, says the Falcon One rocket needs more tests and so the flight will be delayed. If and when the folks in engineering can get the rocket engines up to speed, Scotty's ashes will circle the earth for between 50 and 200 years. Maybe by then we'll have warp drive, and we can send him even further into space. And just in case you were wondering, Captain Kirk never said the now-famous phrase "Beam me up, Scotty" -- just like Bogart never said "Play it again, Sam" and Sgt. Friday never said "Just the facts, ma'am."
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His eye is on the sparrow:
The lesson for today? Don't get in the way of a sleep-deprived TV crew as they try to set up a gigantic stunt involving the Guinness Book of World Records and about four million dominoes. That's what a sparrow did on Monday in the Dutch city of Leeuwarden, by flying in through a window where the crew had spent more than a week setting up dominoes for the big event. The bird flew around and managed to set off a chain reaction that toppled about 23,000 of the little blocks before one of the pre-planned gaps in the layout stopped it short. And the sparrow's fate? It was cornered and shot by an exterminator with an air rifle. While that may have made the TV crews who spent so long setting up the dominoes feel a little better, however, it irked animal protection groups -- who are now asking that the crew be prosecuted for exterminating the poor bird.
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Nice anti-grav you got there:
Boris Volfson must be a pretty famous guy in his home-town of Huntington, Indiana. Why? Because he's the inventor of an anti-gravity spaceship, that's why. And how do we know this? Because Mr. Volfson received a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for such a device earlier this month. As an article in the current edition of Nature magazine notes, this is yet another example of how broken the U.S. patent system is, since it not only allows people such as Mr. Volfson to patent things that defy the laws of physics, but allows them to do so without having to produce a working model. For the record, Mr. Volfson says the spaceship is powered by "a cooled hollow superconductive shield [which] is energized by an electromagnetic field, resulting in the quantized vortices of lattice ions projecting a gravitomagnetic field that forms a spacetime curvature anomaly." But wouldn't dilithium crystals and a warp drive be cheaper?
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A little land to call your own:
Maybe you've been looking for a little plot of land, a little homestead to call your own, but you can't afford to spend a lot. How does $1,500 sound? You can get a plot of land in the charming countryside near Bloomington, Indiana for that -- but you might be a little squeezed for room. Why? Because the plot the county is selling is only one inch square. For that kind of elbow room, it seems a little odd to be charging $1,500, since at that price an acre would cost about $7-billion (Indiana may be nice, but it's not that nice). Unfortunately, the land is part of a larger sale that is being auctioned as a result of unpaid taxes, and there's apparently a $1,500 limit on tax sales. County officials suspect the land dates back to a time when residents had to own property in order to use a nearby lake.
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Come on -- be a donor:
A prank? A "modest proposal," a la Jonathan Swift? Perhaps. But Matt Stata says he is being totally serious with his "flesh donor" program. And just what is the flesh-donor program? Here's what the Flesh Donor website has to say: "As an organ donor, your sacrifice benefits only humans. But as a flesh donor, you would be reducing animal suffering, saving natural habitat from being cleared for agriculture, and saving human lives. How is this possible? Simple! When you become a flesh donor, you agree to donate your body, in the event of your death, for human consumption, thereby reducing the number of animals raised and slaughtered for food." The website even includes a handy description of how to chop a human carcass up into steaks, chops, roasts and other appetizing -- or not so appetizing -- cuts of meat (warning: not for the squeamish). Not surprisingly, perhaps, Matt Stata -- who happens to be from Toronto -- is a vegetarian. One who wants to make a point about eating the flesh of other animals, perhaps?
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That's a big family:
It's natural -- in a Darwinian sense at least -- to want your descendants to multiply, achieving a kind of immortality for your genes. According to a recent study, a man named Giocangga who lived 500 years ago did a pretty good job on that score: A recent article in Nature magazine says that genes from the man, whose grandson became the ruler of the Qing dynasty, appear in more than 1.5 million men currently living in northern China and Mongolia. This record is apparently second only to the infamous Mongolian leader Genghis Khan, whose genes are estimated to be present in more than 16 million men. The study, published in a leading journal of genetic research, says that successful leaders such as Giocangga were able to surround themselves with multiple wives and concubines, and so were their offspring. The Qing dynasty lasted for almost 300 years, from 1644 to 1912.
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Steve Case bows out of Time Warner:
The news that America Online founder Steve Case has decided to leave Time Warner doesn't really come as much of a surprise. According to most reports, Steve -- who has been a member of the board of the cable and entertainment conglomerate until today, but has had little to do with the company otherwise -- is much more focused on the health-care startup he launched earlier this year, called Revolution. And who can blame him? What's surprising is that he stuck around so long after the AOL-Time Warner merger was revealed to have been one of the worst business deals in the history of capitalism, a $160-billion (U.S.)boondoggle in which Mr. Case successfully convinced Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin to let his much-larger company be "acquired" by AOL (AOL had revenue of $4-billion and Time Warner $26-billion, but AOL's market value was twice as large). No doubt some of the options and stock Mr. Case received in that deal -- which marked the exact moment when the tech bubble peaked -- helped finance his health-care venture. Steve may not know much about health, but he sure knows how to swing a deal.
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All your base are belong to Google:
The latest secret project to trickle out of the Google search labs is something called "Google Base," which several people -- including Tony Roscoe discovered while snooping around on the Internet. Apart from being a great excuse to revive the old "all your base are belong to us" gag from a few years ago, it appears to be an open database of some kind that Google intends to launch -- which many observers have speculated could become a kind of on-line classified section, much like Craigslist, which eBay owns part of. Others, including Forrester Researcher staffer Charlene Li, think it could be more than that. Some believe that it could be part of Google's big move into real estate listings, and could coincide with the launch of another rumoured Google offering, a payment scheme dubbed Google Wallet. For its part, the search giant is staying pretty mum on the subject.
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The economy is like jazz:
One is a Jewish intellectual, born in New York, a prolific writer with a self-deprecating sense of humour and a talented jazz clarinet player -- and the other is Woody Allen. I'll bet you thought that description was of the legendary New York-born comedian and film-maker, but in fact it is none other than departing Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan. Like Woody, he was born in New York (in his case, Washington Heights) to a Jewish family and showed considerable talent as a jazz clarinetist and saxophone player. He even attended the famous Juilliard music school for a year, and played bass clarinet with trumpeter Henry Jerome (along with future White House chief counsel Leonard Garment) before deciding that he would never be as good as his erstwhile pal Stan Getz, who went on to become one of the world's great jazz musicians. And what if Stan and Alan hadn't been good friends? Maybe the U.S. would have been deprived of a great central bank chairman -- or maybe the stock market wouldn't have crashed quite as badly as it did in 2000.
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From suspect to juror:
Michael Jackson was ordered to return to court recently -- this time as a juror. Representatives for the town of Santa Barbara, California said that the King of Pop received a summons to appear for jury duty, since his Neverland Ranch is located in Santa Barbara County. Mr. Jackson, also known in some circles as "Wacko Jacko," was acquitted four months ago of child molestation charges after a long and well-publicized trial. Mr. Jackson's legal representatives said that he would almost certainly decline the jury request, since he is no longer a resident of Santa Barbara. After the trial, the singer said he didn't want to live at Neverland Ranch any more, and he has reportedly been living in the tiny Middle Eastern country of Bahrain, where he has been a guest of Shaikh Abdulla bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the son of the country's ruler.
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No day in court for mascot:
It would have been a day to remember at the British Columbia Supreme Court -- the city of Victoria versus Mr. Floatie, a man dressed like a giant piece of feces. The issue? Whether a man dressed in such a costume can run for mayor or not. The city's position is that Mr. Floatie can't legally run for such a job because he is "not a real person but a costumed character." The mascot himself, also known as James Skwarok, was fighting that decision -- although he himself admitted "Of course I'm not a real person, I'm a big piece of poop." (Note: I am not making any of this up). Mr. Floatie shows up regularly at various events in Victoria, handing out pamphlets to protest the city's habit of dumping raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He represents a group calling itself People Opposed to Outfall Pollution or POOP. But apparently a court fight was not what Mr. Floatie had in mind. On Tuesday, he reportedly withdrew his bid for the mayor's job.
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How to end the war on drugs:
Since Norm Stamper is a former cop who served on the Seattle police department for 34 years -- the last few of those as chief of police -- you might think that he has a few ideas about how to win the war on crime and in particular, drug-related crime. And he sure does: he thinks they should be legalized. Not just marijuana, but all drugs of any kind, including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, LSD, mushrooms and just about anything else you can think of. Mr. Stamper notes he has never understood why "adults shouldn't enjoy the same right to use verboten drugs as they have to suck on a Marlboro or knock back a scotch and water," and says that prohibition of drugs rests on the same "wobbly foundation" as prohibition of alcohol did. "Not until we choose to frame responsible drug use not an oxymoron in my dictionary as a civil liberty will we be able to recognize the abuse of drugs, including alcohol, for what it is: a medical, not a criminal, matter," the former police chief says. He recommends legalization, with government controlling the sale and licensing, and the use of the tax proceeds to fund health care for addicts. "Combined with treatment, education and other public health programs for drug abusers," he says, "regulated legalization would make your city or town an infinitely healthier place to live and raise a family."
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At last, a real Nobel prize:
Although not quite as well known as the real Nobel prize, the award known as the "Ig Nobel" prize has one major benefit that the real version does not: It's a lot funnier. Over the years, the Harvard-based institution has awarded prizes in 10 categories, for scientific research that "cannot or should not be reproduced." Past winners include researchers who studied the effect of country music on suicide, a chemist who studied the make-up of a statue that did not attract pigeons, a scientist who studied the hippocampus region of London taxi drivers, and two men who have been chronicling the movement of a glob of congealed tar through a funnel, a process that produces a single drop every nine years or so (the experiment has been running continuously since 1927). In an unusual twist this year, a man who regularly sweeps the floor at the Ig Nobel awards -- cleaning up the hundreds of paper airplanes that are traditionally thrown at the recipients -- has won a real Nobel prize for physics. Retired physics professor and former Manhattan Project researcher Roy Glauber won the prize along with two other scientists as a result of his work on the use of quantum theory in optical research.
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No -- not the Smurfs!
It looks like just another winsome episode of that beloved children's show The Smurfs, with little blue people in shorts and hats dancing hand-in-hand around a campfire singing the Smurf song. Then the bombs come. Raining down on the village of mushroom-shaped houses, they destroy the Smurf kingdom and leave bodies strewn in the streets, huts blazing and motherless (Smurfette-less?) children wailing. Some Internet moron's idea of a joke? Nope. An awareness campaign by Unicef Belgium designed to illustrate the dangers of war, using the cute characters developed by a Belgian artist named Peyo -- known alternatively as either Smurfen or Schtroumpfs, depending on which of the country's official languages you're speaking. Publicis, the ad firm that came up with the idea, says it actually wanted to get even more graphic. "We wanted something that was real war - Smurfs losing arms, or a Smurf losing a head -but they said no," said a spokesman.
Update: Several readers said they found the Smurf bombing offensive or disturbing (although one said he thought the "little blue bastards" should have been bombed long ago), but others said they thought the campaign was a good one. Reader Eric McQueen of South Carolina wrote to say that he was disturbed by the ad, but the more he thought about it the more he liked it: "Seeing the ad disturbed me greatly. I didn't like it at all," he says. "Then it occurred to me, why should I be so upset about fictional characters being 'bombed' when I hear about it happening in reality? Do I get as upset about the reality as the fiction? Of course not! The Smurfs are comfortable, known to me. The faceless people in other parts of the world are not. So, it hit me personally and I got it. It was shock value and point-making at its best. I hated the ad, but I like the message." Michelle Irving agrees, saying "Why sugar coat what actually goes on in this world? To a lot of children this fictional cartoon is their reality. We need to be taken out of our comfort zone from time to time, and be awakened to what is actually happening around us. People should be more outraged at what is actually going on in the real world, versus being outraged at the cartoon that portrays the truth. I support this idea. If it's grabbing your attention, then it's accomplishing its purpose."
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Thanks for nothing, Ottawa:
It's nice when the federal government takes a little time to show that it cares about the little guy -- like the recent announcement by the governing Liberals that they plan to spend $2.5-billion over the next five years to help low-income Canadians deal with the high cost of energy. Here's an even better idea: how about not taking quite so much money out of our pockets every time we fill up at the gas pump? Much of what people see as the dramatic rise in gas prices over the past couple of decades is a result of rising taxes, to the point where provincial and federal taxes make up 40 to 50 per cent of what you pay to fill your car, depending on where you live. There's the federal excise tax -- which was hiked in 1995 to help slay the federal deficit, but never lowered again -- and a variety of provincial taxes, and that's before you get to sales tax. The GST, of course, is a percentage tax that gets added to the price of fuel after all the other taxes are applied -- making it not only a tax on top of a tax, but one that increases as the price of gas increases. In other words, what Ottawa plans to give us with its munificent $2.5-billion gesture is some of our own money. Thanks a lot.
Update: Reader Leo Cheng wonders why the media "follow the government line and use terms like 'surplus' instead of 'over-taxed?'" When the government brags about a $9-billion surplus, he says, we should "be realistic and call it 'over taxing the public by $9-billion.'" Other readers said that high gasoline prices are actually a good thing, because they encourage people to reduce consumption. Bistrin Opacic says he finds the high prices "welcome and necessary," because "if gasoline sold for 30 cents or 40 cents per litre, would anyone care about fuel economy or energy conservation?" High fuel prices, he says, are "finally causing auto manufacturers to focus on fuel efficiency and new technologies like hybrids, which will benefit us all in the long run." Greg Teleglow agrees that "we need even higher energy prices before we start to change our energy use habits," and Chris Heppner says "gas prices should be high -- must be high -- to exert real pressure on individuals and corporations to use less."
Reader Craig Cousins has a novel idea: why not take Canada out of the world oil market and price Canadian-produced oil at cheaper prices for Canadians, the way they do in Saudi Arabia and other major oil-producing nations. "Why not uncouple our domestic crude prices from the market?" he asks. "Why hose
the Canadian public? Let's pay the oil producers the real cost plus an appropriate profit margin." R.J. Bois wonders whether gas retailers make too much money when they "sell coffee, smokes, donuts, etc, etc, at all the gasbar/confection stores they own. Maybe the oil companies will feel a (little pinch anyway) if we made all of our minor purchases like these, in an actual convenience store!!" Colin Lee says people who complain about taxes making up 40 per cent of the pump price are wrong because the federal excise tax and provincial gas taxes are fixed (GST is a percentage). At $1 a litre, he says, "tax
actually makes up about 30 per cent of the price of gas in Ontario." The issue people should be examining, he says, is "how we're all being
screwed by big oil."
Reader Keith Selby says that uncoupling Canadian crude from the market wouldn't work, because "oil currently produced here would find it's way to where it can get the highest price -- it's called free enterprise. Any attempt to regulate a price internally by Government decree would immediately stifle investment in the oil patch with repercussions going far beyond 'Big Oil'." Hugh McNeil says that taxes on gas are "effectively efficient 'user pay' taxes, which
defray the enormous cost of our roadways." He says he thinks the cost of insurance should somehow be included in gas taxes as well, which would "aid the insurance industry and the consumer by benefiting consumers who use their cars only occasionally... and more accurately charging drivers who use their autos the most." Fred Marcos says that in third-world countries, politicians buy votes with their own money, but in Canada "the Liberals use taxpayers' own money -- like being fried with your own fat!"
Gordon Gruber says his response to Colin Lee is: "If I could chose between getting screwed by big oil and getting screwed by the Federal Govt I will chose big oil every time. At least they eventually react to market forces -- that is to me. The Govt does nothing but take my money, over and over and over again." As for Craig Cousins' idea to "pay producers the real cost plus an appropriate profit margin," Mr. Gruber says Mr. Cousins "obviously doesn't understand the difference between cost and value. As for appropriate profit margins, that has been tried and failed. (See Soviet Union in your encyclopedia)."
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Bring on the beards:
Maybe you're getting a little old, or a little out of shape, and the chances that you're going to suddenly vault into the lead in the Tour de France or the Giant Slalom ski races at Kitzbuhel seem pretty remote at this point. Take heart -- if you're a man with facial hair, you can always become a professional beard or moustache grower. Just look at Willi Chevalier, who just won in the "partial beard, freestyle" category of the World Beard and Moustache Championships, which were held in Berlin over the weekend. Admittedly, Mr. Chevalier has had to do a lot of difficult training to get his beard to do what it does, not to mention the hours spent waxing and so forth. Elmar Weisser had an even harder time coaxing his beard into a rough approximation of Germany's famous Brandenburg Gate, complete with flags.
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About that cancer thing...:
There's been a lot of celebrating about the recent Supreme Court ruling in the tobacco case, which said that the B.C. government can sue Rothmans for health costs involving cigarette smoking. Now the province can grab $10-billion or so of that tobacco money, right? Not so fast. The government has one tiny little problem, which is that it, like every other province and the federal government, has been making billions a year from the tobacco industry thanks to the taxes that are applied to cigarettes, taxes that are allegedly levied in order to try and convince people to stop smoking. All those taxes really do, of course, is make governments vast sums of money -- money they from an addiction that in turn forms a large part of the case they would like to make against the tobacco companies. Should the province not bear some of the responsibility for making sure that cigarettes weren't harmful before they licensed them for sale? Just wondering.
Update: Reader Leonard Rosenberg notes that "governments have long taxed alcohol which is addictive and causes health problems, and, in fact, participate in its sale, I think in all provinces. And while we are on addiction -- how about casinos and lotteries? The wonderful democratic governments we elect seem to think this too is fair game when it comes to promoting the industry and collecting the taxes." Stew Baker says that "nobody forced people to smoke. If any group should be sued it should be those smokers who have cost the medical plans millions for their voluntarily induced illnesses. What is next? Do we sue the car makers for the cost of motor vehicle accidents? Do we sue the makers of swimming pools for all those drowning deaths? Or the makers of boats, jet skis etc.?" Troy Craig says "perhaps there should be a class action suit by the public that would not only name the tobacco companies but the governments that got rich off of selling cigarettes as co-conspirators. For that mater what about alcohol and any one that has had a love one die from a drunk driver or alcoholism. Is the government not getting a great deal of money from the sale of alcohol? What about VLT's and the addictions caused by them?" And Ray Dahn says "now that it is definitely known that smoking is so harmful, the provinces should proclaim tobacco products not legal and give up the income from tobacco taxes which are offset by the health costs they create."
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Can I deduct my amulets?:
It seems that being a witch isn't just a calling, or a pastime, or even a hobby -- as far as the Dutch government is concerned, it's a business, and therefore tax deduction rules apply. That's why they let 39-year-old actress and part-time witch Margarita Roland claim a deduction of 2,210 euros for a course she took in how to use crystal balls and magic herbs. A tax official said she "used the training in order to start ... giving workshops, so she used it to extend her professional knowledge." Ms. Roland, whose website shows her with a broomstick and pointed hat, said she teaches apprentices all they need to know to become a witch. Including how to use tax rules to their advantage, presumably.
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Not on my Internet, you don't:
You may be allowed to pick up a gun and kill just about any kind of animal in the United States (provided it's the proper season, of course) but you can't pick up a computer mouse and kill anything any more -- at least not in the state of New York, anyway. In fact, you can't even pick up a mouse and shoot a gun at anything in New York, thanks to a new law. The state decided to crack down on several websites that allow users to pay money to shoot at wild game with a variety of weapons from a remote location, and also banned sites that allow users to shoot at inanimate objects. Governor George Patakai called online hunting "an inappropriate and potentially dangerous activity that does not reflect the true sport of hunting." Other states are considering similar laws. The most popular hunting site allows users to shoot at various animals using a rifle, gun, bow and arrow, mechanically-propelled blades, pikes and harpoons.
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The undershirt of a hero:
Admiral Horatio Nelson is arguably one of the biggest military heroes in British history, thanks to his victory over Napoleon's navy at the Battle of Trafalgar -- and now you can own his undershirt. Was it the same undershirt he the one-armed admiral wore on that fateful day? Hard to say. In any case, one of his undergarments is being auctioned off by Sotheby's. The auction house said it may be the only piece of the military hero's clothing still in private hands. The shirt, which has an "N" embroidered inside the neck and a right sleeve that is cut short, is expected to bring bids of as much as $900,000. If your credit card still has some room on it, you can also buy other Nelson relics, including a 10-page epistle to his mistress Emma Hamilton.
Single regulator a pipe dream?
Bank of Canada governor David Dodge is the latest person to lend his support to the idea of Canada having a single, national securities regulator rather than the hodge-podge of provincial regulators we have now (yes, Saskatchewan has one, and Nova Scotia, and so does Newfoundland and Labrador. But will Mr. Dodge's vote count for anything? Not if the past is anything to go by. Supporters of the idea started pressing for a single regulator in the mid-1980s, and it has been recommended by finance ministers, bank chairmen and government committees at both the provincial and federal level every couple of years since then. Whenever it comes to actually doing it, however, something gets in the way -- such as hostility from Quebec, for example, or resistance from British Columbia. The main sticking point (although no one wants to say so) is that everyone is afraid that Ontario will take control of everything because it is such a large part of the securities market . And Ottawa can't seem to decide whether having a single regulator is important enough to force the provinces to agree. Got a solution for that, Mr. Dodge?
It's a real page-turner:
If you've always wanted to read the Bible, but have felt intimidated by the sheer size and number of words in the darn thing, the Rev. Michael Hinton has something just for you: an edited version he calls the "100-minute Bible." Unveiled recently at Canterbury Cathedral in England, the book boasts the Bishop of Jarrow -- the Right Reverend John Pritchard -- as a consulting editor. Rev. Hinton said that he "majored on Jesus, because he is the central figure in the Bible," and tried to focus on "the stories that have entered the common consciousness, like Noah's Ark, Jonah and so on." He said that the book was designed to let people know that the Bible tells a great story, "and let's not get put off by the things that are going to be the sub-plot. Let's give you the big plot." And no skipping to the end to see who did it. Available from The 100-Minute Press.
Yes, it's a giant pink bunny:
Bet the headline on this blog item got your attention, didn't it? I'm all for serious subjects like the Hans Island imbroglio -- which now appears to be settled -- but the bizarre and unusual catched my eye too, and I would say a giant pink bunny about 200 feet long lying on an Italian hill-side definitely fits into the latter category. Apparently, it's the creation of an artists' collective called Gelatin, and they plan to leave it lying on the hillside until 2025. They encourage hikers to climb the 20-foot sides of the bunny, which they say was "knitted by dozens of grannies out of pink wool."
From expletive to T-shirt:
Ben Marble of Gulfport, Mississippi isn't what you would call a hell-raiser. He's in a couple of indie rock bands, but he's also an emergency room physician and father. At the same time, however, he's also a frustrated resident of an area torn apart by hurricane Katrina, whose wife gave birth by flashlight. So when Vice-President Dick Cheney came to town and had a little press conference, Dr. Marble decided to vent his frustration by telling the VP to do something unmentionable. Video clips of him yelling "F*** you, Dick Cheney!" showed up on The Daily Show and quickly circulated on the Internet -- and now the good doctor has turned his moment of fame into a little cottage industry. You can buy T-shirts commemorating the event, as well as coffee mugs, and you can even bid on the original videotape on eBay. Might make a nice keepsake, don't you think, Mr. Cheney?
Reggie caught? Not a chance:
On Tuesday, there were reports that he had finally been nabbed by the authorities and thrown in the slammer, but the latest reports are that he is still at large. He is described as being about two metres long and dark green in colour, with rather large teeth, and his name is Reggie. He's an alligator, and he has been on the lam for the past several weeks in Los Angeles, where two men (who were later arrested) illegally dropped him into a lake late one night. He has become a folk hero of sorts, as he has eluded police, firefighters, park rangers, animal control officers, state fish and game workers, volunteer herpetologists and two teams of gator wranglers. On Tuesday, a man claiming to be alligator handler Jay Young said that he had caught Reggie and would be taking him to the LA Zoo, but the alligator never showed up. Mr. Young -- who tried and failed to catch Reggie last month, after promising it would only take him a day to rein in the rogue reptile -- said he hasn't been anywhere near the area, and police said the man was an imposter. And so Reggie continues to outwit his two-legged pursuers.
What does this button do?:
Back when hard drives and compact discs cost a lot of money, companies and governments alike tried to minimize their storage costs by deleting old files. Unfortunately, some have neglected to update those policies -- including the Inland Reveue service in the United Kingdom, which has apparently deleted the records of more than one million accounts. According to embarrassed government officials, files were deleted as part of a space-saving measure, and it wasn't until recently that the tax office realized many of those cases were still open. So have thousands of Britons wound up getting a tax holiday as a result of this snafu? Some have -- about 22,000 of those accounts owed money, Inland Revenue says. Unfortunately, about 360,000 taxpayers who now can't be identified were due for a refund.
Rhymes with hype:
By all accounts, Swedish tech entrepeneur Niklas Zennstrom is a nice guy -- and smart too. And now you can add "rich" to that list of attributes, since he has somehow convinced eBay to pay $2.6-billion (U.S.) or so for his voice-over-Internet company, Skype. And what does eBay get for all that dosh? About 55 million registered users (that is, people who have signed up and downloaded the free software, not necessarily those who use it), and about $60-million in revenue -- from the small fraction of those users who actually pay money for Skype's added services, such as the ability to receive calls from regular telephones rather than computers. That purchase price works out to a multiple of about 43 times sales. By way of comparison, tech superstar Google is trading for about 18 times its sales per share -- and let's not forget that Google makes a substantial profit. What does Skype make? Not much, since its main service is free. If that sounds like a good deal to you, you have a great career ahead of you in corporate finance.
Update: Telecom and Internet guru Om Malik notes in his blog that the total price works out to about $20-million per Skype employee, or 10 times what Cisco Systems paid for router companies at the height of the tech bubble. VoIP pioneer Jeff Pulver (of Free World Dialup fame) wonders what eBay is buying for their money other than "some pretty cool P2P technology and a great brand", and Scott Raynovich at LightReading.com notes that deals such as Time Warner's takeover of AOL show that valuing companies based on users, or theoretical future revenue, is a recipe for disaster.
Hands up, whoever wants to return their bonus:
According to a recent analyst's report, CIBC could decide to get all bashful about its corporate bonuses in the wake of the bank's $2-billion writedown on its part in the Enron affair. Robert Wessel of National Bank Financial says it could be difficult for the bank to justify paying out the almost $1-billion in bonuses that have been built up but not paid out yet. Since some or all of those executives would have been involved in the decisions that led to the Enron settlement, that seems fair. But what about recently-departed CEO John Hunkin? He's already received his $50-million or so worth of bonuses and farewell gifts from the bank, so presumably he won't be part of any such rollback, despite the fact that a good portion of Mr. Hunkin's bonuses (boni?) were based on financial results that were impaired by the Enron settlement -- a settlement announced just days after he left office. Nice work if you can get it.
Update: Readers seem to agree that Mr. Hunkin should pay back some of his bonuses, even if there's little CIBC can do to retract them retroactively. John M., who described himself as an "ex-CIBC investor and victim," was quite critical of the ex-CEO, while one reader called the bonuses "unconscionable." Another reader said that they "have yet to see a responsible executive step forward and 'lead' with a statement that it was on their watch this major mistake was made, and accept the punishment as well as the rewards for leading the ship into the iceberg."
Michael Cox said that he found the situation with Mr. Hunkin and his bonus "unbelievable," but argues (as others have) that it is the board of directors who are responsible for the payouts, and "should be held accountable (and ousted wholesale) for this mess." And Robert Topolnytsky adds: "And senior executives wonder why the public thinks so little of them!"
A library with more than books:
Why should books be the only thing you can take out of a library? Sure, that's the way it's been for the past several thousand years, but what the heck. Unconstrained by the weight of history, a Swedish library has decided to let library users check out people as well -- certain specific people, who are available for a 45-minute chat or perhaps a walk around town somewhere. Why? In order to help demolish prejudices about different religions, nationalities and professions, the library in Malmo says. The people available for lending include a Muslim, a lesbian, a journalist, a gypsy, a blind man and an animal rights activist. The idea was first introduced at Denmark's Roskilde Festival in 2000, librarian and has since been tried at a Copenhagen library as well as in Norway, Portugal, and Hungary.
And no crop-tops either:
We've probably all seen someone at our workplace dressed in a way that cries out for intervention -- someone who believes that Spandex pants and midriff-baring tube tops are appropriate not just for teenagers but for overweight middle-aged secretaries as well, or someone who thinks a Black Sabbath T-shirt from the 1970s is the ideal office garb. A Hungarian politician named Gabor Mitynan feels the same way, but he isn't waiting for someone else to take action: he's trying to legislate it. The mayor of a district in Budapest, Mr. Mitynan has said that City Hall staff should only be permitted to wear mini-skirts if they "have completely perfect legs," and that men should wear blazers, even in the summer time. Oh yes, and he also believes that crop tops should be forbidden, because "few women have well-trained bellies worth showing to people." Good luck with that, Gabor.
Just a little craft project:
Lots of people have hobbies, or things that keep their hands busy when it's raining outside, or the PlayStation 2 is in the shop -- things like crocheting baby booties, or making miniature ships in bottles. Former Hollywood stuntman Robert McDonald decided to build a full-scale replica of a 15-metre-long Viking longship out of ice cream sticks. This project not only consumed more than 15 million tiny birch-wood sticks, but two years worth of time for Mr. McDonald and two volunteers. Now, Mr. McDonald hopes to actually set sail in the boat with a crew of 25, cross the Atlantic and thereby set the record for the longest journey by a sailing ship made out of ice-cream sticks. Best of luck, Ron.
Live forever in print:
It's the next thing to being famous -- like a walk-on part in a movie or TV show, but without the pictures. A number of award-winning authors, including Stephen King and alternative-fiction star David Eggers, are selling the right to have a character named after you appear in one of their upcoming novels. In Mr. King's case, the master of the macabre has said that bidders should be prepared to have their literary doppelgangers involved in some nasty business, since the story involves a cell-phone that turns users into zombies. If you decide to bid on a female character, he says, you can pretty much count on your alter ego being dead by the end. Also selling off literary bragging rights -- in an auction designed to raise funds for a non-profit group that promotes freedom of expression -- are authors such as Amy Tan and Lemony Snicket, who promises that the name will be spoken by one of the Baudelaire children, Sunny.
Yes, we know it's funny:
Teenagers and university students being what they are, there are plenty of towns that spend a lot of time replacing their signs -- towns such as Dildo, Newfoundland (home town of former Playboy centerfold Shannon Tweed), or the town of Hell in Norway. One of the most popular for European travellers is the town of Fucking, Austria. A small hamlet near Salzburg, the town has apparently had its odd moniker since the 11th century, and was reportedly named in honour of a local nobleman from the 6th century called Focko. Although the word means "place of Focko's people" in Austrian, residents are painfully aware that it means something entirely different in English, since they spend a substantial portion of their town's budget replacing their highway signs. They also get a lot of tourists visiting for the purpose of having their picture taken by the signs, however, so there are benefits. The town considered changing its name in 2004, but residents voted against doing so.
How about a bake-off?:
I know that foreign relations is serious business -- honest, I do. And I know that protecting Canada's sovereignty is also pretty important, even when it comes to the vast tracts of frozen wasteland in our far north where nothing but a few polar bears roam. But really -- a showdown with Denmark over a tiny frozen island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean? Do we have nothing better to do? If there's anything that is more likely to make Canada look ridiculous as a foreign power, I can't think of what it might be. The website Fark.com, which specializes in stupid or ridiculous news items, has already linked to a story about the "occupation" of Hans Island by Foreign Minister Bill Graham (under the heading "Silly") and commenters are having a field day. Maybe our navy -- er, sorry, our ship -- could fight their ship. Or maybe we could have a bake-off: Danishes versus croissants. At dawn.
Undercover becomes no cover:
Get ready to fire up the old pun machine: After a series of incidents of sexual aggressiveness at a British nude beach -- a beach whose official name is Studland Beach, and no, I am not making this up -- British police will be doffing their clothes to patrol the area in an attempt to prevent further incidents. According to the police service, the officers will not go completely au natural but will wear swim trunks or other "bathing costumes," as the Brits like to call them, in an attempt to blend in. "There has been concern about the activities of several predatory males and concern from nudists that they were being approached, said Chief Inspector Nick Maton. "This was worrying the naturist community." Studland Beach Users Action Group, a partnership of police and naturists, has produced a leaflet deploring those who "through sexual misconduct threaten to bring naturism into disrepute." A number of questions leap to mind on hearing this news. For example, where will they keep their batons?
Is banking while drunk a crime?:
Supermodel Maggie Rizer, whose stepfather allegedly took large sums of money -- almost $7-million (U.S.) -- out of her bank account for his personal use, is trying to blame financial giant HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp.) for because it allowed him to perform these transactions while intoxicated. The bank says it was under no obligation to check her stepfather's condition, since he had a "power of attorney" over Ms. Rizer's bank account. In its motion for dismissal, HSBC said that "there is no law prohibiting banking while intoxicated or while using medication. To hold that such a duty exists would place an unreasonable, and illogical duty upon banks. Mr. Breen's alleged intoxicated state is simply irrelevant." The bank also says that because Ms. Rizer's stepfather -- who is now in prison after being convicted of grand larceny -- had a legal power of attorney, it couldn't have refused his requests even if it had wanted to.
That's two minutes unpaid time:
Continuing a theme that started with hotels in London tripling their prices in the aftermath of the bombings in that city (see item below), there's a story from a British municipality of a company that told its employees they would have to take time out of their lunch break if they wanted to observe two minutes of silence in memory of those killed in the attacks. According to a story in the local newspaper, a manager at an information technology told employees that they could not observe the two-minute silence unless they did so on their own time. One employee, who did not want to be named, said: "It's a disgrace. It takes people longer to go to the toilet or have a cigarette, which we're allowed to do, than it would to respect the silence." A spokesman for the company said that the e-mail did not represent company policy and was sent by mistake.
Just put ICE in your contacts:
A London emergency worker says that the terrorist bombs that exploded in his city have increased interest in a program he has been trying to start that would help make it easier for rescue workers to identify victims of such attacks or other accidents by contacting their next of kin. Paramedic Bob Brotchie came up with the idea after noticing that many victims have cellphones with them, but it's hard to get much information from them. So he proposed a program where cellphone users would be encouraged to keep the name and number of an emergency contact in their phone under the name ICE -- for "in case of emergency." Mr. Brotchie says the idea has spread as far as the U.S. and Australia.
Thanks for nothing, Adam Smith:
From the ice storm of 1998 to the Ontario blackout of 2003 and the recent bomb attacks in Britain, each new calamity, however horrific, seems to spark a single overriding thought for some retailers -- namely: How can I make as much money as possible from this tragedy? In London, according to the BBC, some hotel chains were reportedly boosting their room rates by as much as 500 per cent in order to take advantage of travellers who couldn't make it home because the tube was down and the bus system was in chaos. Some readers who wrote in to the BBC website said that they had been charged almost 300 pounds (about $600) for a room that would normally rent for 100 pounds. There were reports of some hotels charging as much as 600 pounds for a room. While some hotels went out of their way to help by providing rooms at a discount or not charging companies that booked emergency accommodations and then cancelled, others seemed to be operating on that old principle: a fast buck is the best buck. Obviously they've never heard of the idea of building long-term customer relationships.
Update: Reader Scott McCulloch of San Jose, Calif. wrote to say that he didn't think the tone of my Adam Smith reference was very fair. Scott said: "My understanding is that the capitalism we "practice" today... does not really resemble what Adam Smith was advocating. As I understand it, along with capital markets, profit, and so on, Adam Smith was a strong proponent of social responsibility." Scott is quite right -- the title of this blog item was meant as a joke. Mr. Smith's concept of the "invisible hand" of the markets also relied on the idea of individuals pursuing their own self-interests, but an "enlightened" self-interest -- an idea that the London hotel-owners in question might want to consider.
Don't listen to the experts:
A number of lessons have been drawn from the terrorist attacks on New York on September 11, 2001, including lessons about foreign policy, airport security and so on. But experts who study such things have been more interested in a different lesson, one suggested by those who managed to escape the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and those who did not. And the lesson appears to be this: Don't listen to the authorities -- in such cases, particularly in a world with cellphones and BlackBerries, those on the scene could well have more information than those giving the orders. For example, according to a report with the thrilling title Occupant Behavior, Egress, and Emergency Communications from the U.S. National Institute on Standards and Technology, people in the towers were told to remain where they were when they called 911, and were also trained to use the stairs instead of the elevators in the event of an emergency. Many of those who survived the attacks ignored both of these pieces of advice, just as others chose to ignore the advice from the Port Authority to go back to their offices in the second tower after the first tower was hit. In many cases, it was cellphones and BlackBerries that gave people enough information to act on. And you thought technology was a waste of time.
Estonian family wins again:
Estonia is a relatively small country, with a total population of about a million, and it doesn't really dominate in any sort of international field -- except, of course, the "sport" of wife-carrying. In case you're unfamiliar with this event, it involves a male contestant carrying a woman (not necessarily his wife) over a 253-metre obstacle course, and Estonians regularly bag the international title -- or, to be more specific, one particular family tends to win. Margo Uusorg's victory in the latest contest, which as usual was held in the remote town of Sonkajarvi in Finland (Estonia's sister nation), means the Uusorg family has won the even three times in a row -- and Margo hinted that a fourth victory was in the offing, since brother Urmet will compete next year and he is a championship-calibre runner. If you're interested in competing, the key to the Uusorg dynasty appears to be the "Estonian carry," which involves the female passenger riding upside down over the back of the contestant, with her legs wrapped around his neck. And the incentive to carry someone heavy is fairly obvious: The winner is awarded his passenger's weight in beer.
How about a little "air of carrot":
The top chefs of the world are a little like the top fashion designers, whose fantastic creations grace the catwalks of Milan but are rarely seen on an actual human being (Paris Hilton doesn't count). In the case of renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria, you have to put your name on a waiting list for more than a year and pay upwards of $600 for a 27-course meal at his El Bulli restaurant before you get to see (let alone eat) any of his creations. And what do you get for that kind of dosh? Lately, Mr. Adria -- who has a research kitchen that he uses as a kind of laboratory for far-out cuisine -- has been cooking a lot with super-cooled gases such as nitrogen and hydrogen. On the appetizer menu at El Bulli, for example, is "pistachio truffle cooled in liquid nitrogen" as well as a course simply called "liquid," which consists of a peach dipped in liquid hydrogen. Then there's "air of carrot," which is a frothy dish of whipped carrot foam. Or you could try the butter ravioli wrapped in warm gelatin made from marine water. According to Mr. Adria, he more or less invented the whole concept of warm gelatin. Interested? Better book now, and start saving those pennies.
Who won? That depends who's talking:
If you're a file-sharing fan, among the most eagerly awaited (and/or dreaded) court rulings in recent memory was handed down on Monday morning by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Grokster case -- in which the record industry and the movie industry were suing two popular file-sharing or peer-to-peer networks (Grokster and StreamCast) for contributing to the infringement of copyright by allowing millions of P2P users to download songs and movies without paying for them. In a nutshell, the defence argued that P2P networks should be protected by the argument used in the Sony Betamax case in 1984, in which the maker of videocassette recorders was sued because its technology allowed people to record TV shows. Sony was acquitted because its technology was capable of "substantial non-infringing uses." In the latest decision, however, the court effectively said that this defence was not a blanket get-out-of-lawsuits-free card, and that if a software provider advertises and markets its product as a way of getting around copyright -- as both Grokster and StreamCast have, according to the Supremes -- and doesn't even try to find ways of preventing unlawful uses of its technology, then it is liable. Depending on whom you're listening to, this is either a heinous attack on personal freedoms or a balanced response to the dangers of file-sharing (I would lean towards the latter, for what it's worth). More discussion can be found here.
It'll be a "model" parliament:
Politics is important, and occasionally even interesting, but it is rarely described as sexy -- except perhaps in Bulgaria. Among the candidates running for office in that country's general elections is one Yuliana Kancheva, the deputy leader of the Euroroma Party, which represents Bulgaria's gypsy (or Roma) population. In addition to being a party leader, Ms. Kancheva also happens to be a model who has appeared on the cover of her country's version of Playboy magazine. Among other things, she has also appeared in a sexy video for a Bulgarian pop star named Azis (born Vassil Trayanov), a muscular white-haired man who favours high heels and mascara -- who happens to be the leader of the Euroroma Party, and is also running for office in the general elections. Among those running against the two model/pop stars are Nadezhda Zaharieva, a poet who represents the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and has written the lyrics for a number of Bulgarian hit songs. Maybe MTV should get someone over there to cover the election.
Is a Pope's car better than a Ferrari?:
Although sporty enough, the 1999 Volkswagen Golf was not exactly a street-racing machine. It had a 2-litre, four-cylinder engine that produced about 115 horsepower on a straightaway, with a five-speed manual transmission. Current prices for a used Golf are about $13,500 (U.S.). The special-edition Ferrari 550 Maranello, on the other hand, is one of the finest sports cars in the world. It has a 12-cylinder Berlinetta engine and a six-speed manual transmission that produces about 480 horsepower, and it has a top speed of about 320 kilometres per hour. They often sell in the $150,000 range. And which one of these would you expect to win the top price in an auction? If you said the Golf, you'd be right. A silver-grey model, said to have been owned by the current Pope Benedict XVI (otherwise known as Joseph Ratzinger), recently sold to the GoldenPalace on-line casino for $244,000. And the Ferrari Maranello belonging to Formula One racing champion Michael Schumacher? It was recently pulled from an auction on eBay because it didn't meet the reserve bid price of $100,000.
Hey, Grandad -- what about these bills?:
It was a heartwarming and touching story: an 80-year-old Italian pensioner, Giorgio Angelozzi, had advertised in a newspaper for a family willing to take him in, saying he was lonely living in his tiny apartment with his seven cats. The story captured the hearts of readers around the world after news services picked it up, and a Hollywood studio was reportedly working on a movie-of-the-week about it as well, after a family answered the ad and adopted Mr. Angelozzi. "I knew right away that I had found my new home," he said. This story doesn't have a Hollywood ending, however. The kindly old man has ditched his adopted family and left behind a $2,800 (U.S.) dentist's bill, and a couple of bounced checks, which turned out to have been stolen from another family that took pity on the old man. Mr. Angelozzi was found Thursday at a state residence for elderly people on the outskirts of Milan, having turned up there eight days earlier with no money. Maybe they could rework that script and turn it into a comedy.
Favourite band? Queen, of course:
Elizabeth II, otherwise known as Her Royal Highness the Queen of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and various other territories, may seem like a lot of things, but a toe-tapping iPod owner isn't one of them. And yet, according to a report in the always-reliable British tabloid The Sun, the Queen is now the proud owner of a six-gigabyte iPod, something that was reportedly suggested by her son Andrew. Obviously, the chances that Her Majesty will become a rabid fan of Kazaa or Limewire and start downloading tracks madly are pretty slim, and as a spokesman pointed out, downloading is complicated, so "Im sure one of the courtiers will do it for her." What songs might show up? The CBC has suggested the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen, which seems a little unlikely, given the venom in Johnny Rotten's voice, as well as Get Rich or Die Trying by 50 Cent, which also seems unlikely. Killer Queen by Queen perhaps? Dancing Queen by ABBA? Rocket Queen by Guns 'n Roses? We can also report that the band Queen is no longer Her Majesty's favourite group -- too old-fashioned. Today's choice: Queens of the Stone Age.
Home delivery -- via eagle:
For fish lovers, there's nothing better than some nice fresh salmon, especially the Alaskan kind. But where to find it? Jean Stack got hers delivered right into her living room -- by an eagle that smashed through her plate-glass window. Of course, she lives in Ketchikan, a small town in Alaska, where eagles and salmon are a lot more common than in some other places. But even in Ketchikan, you usually have to go out and get your own salmon. Ms. Stack heard a crashing sound one morning and came into the living room to find a bald eagle flapping around in the shattered remains of her window, which a neighbour said "didn't even slow it down." The bird flew off, but it left something behind: a two-foot-long headless salmon. Yum.
Remember, robots are our friends:
Robots have made their way into a number of different businesses over the past few years, from giant car-making robots to automated teller machines. And why not? They can do a lot more than human beings, and you don't even have to pay them. One robot apparently doesn't think too highly of that arrangement, however: Waldo, a pill-dispensing robot that runs around helping nurses provide medication at San Francisco's UCSF Medical Center decided to go AWOL while on a shift, and instead of heading back to the dispensary proceeded to barge into the hospital's radiation oncology unit, where a patient was undergoing an examination. According to a report in the San Francisco Examiner, a doctor and patient fled the room after the battery-operated robot refused to leave. Maybe Waldo got into a little of the Demerol while he was making his rounds? In any case, the hospital said that it was going to have the unit inspected, along with its two fellow pill-dispensing automatons, nick-named Elvis and Lisa Marie.
Burning a pile of Wal-Marts?:
Is there a right to shop at the super-store of one's choosing -- and if so, is this on a par with the right to read? A recent newspaper ad financed by retailing behemoth Wal-Mart seemed to suggest as much: the ad, which was designed to criticize the city council in Flagstaff, Arizona for trying to block a Wal-Mart outlet, featured a pile of burning books at a Nazi rally and compared that with the council's resolution against the opening of the store. "Should we let government tell us what we can read? Of course not," the ad said. "So why should we allow local government to limit where we shop?" Not surprisingly, various groups -- including the Jewish Anti-Defamation League -- were more than a little irritated by this comparison, and complained to Wal-Mart. The ad was removed, and the retailing colossus placed another one apologizing, saying the company "did not know of the photo's historical context until after the fact." The public relations person in charge of the ad, Peter Kanelos, has left the company "on mutually agreeable terms."
Ironically, some complain of joint pain:
The list of things that can -- and do -- go wrong during surgery is unfortunately pretty long, including sponges and other instruments left inside patients, etc. In the case of two North Carolina hospitals, it wasn't so much where the instruments wound up as what they were dunked in before the surgeons used them. It turns out that the scalpels and other tools were cleaned not with detergent, as medical staff expected, but with hydraulic elevator oil. Why would someone clean medical instruments with elevator oil, you ask? Apparently, workers who were fixing an elevator at one of the hospitals had to drain all the oil from the unit, and decided to use empty detergent drums that just happened to be laying around the hospital work area. Medical investigators said that the detergent and the elevator oil looked very similar, and while there were numerous reports of slippery instruments no one thought to look into it any further. Some 50 patients have complained of fatigue and other ailments, including (ironically) joint pain, and in some cases have sought legal representation.
Let's hope he got a day off at least:
What would you do if you were confronted by a man with a gun while delivering pizzas? Run away? Hand him all your money, as well as the pies you're supposed to deliver? Not Thomas Stefanelli, a loyal employee with Hungry Howie's Pizza in Tampa, Florida -- who we hope has been made employee of the year, if not the millennium. He went to an address to make a delivery and found it was vacant, at which point a man with a gun demanded his money. Instead of dropping the pizzas and handing it over, Tom fought with the gunman, who fired a couple of shots and then fled. A little while later the delivery man noticed he was bleeding from a gunshot wound to his thigh, so he went to his next delivery and called his boss to report the incident. That's not the best part though -- then Tom went and made a few more deliveries before heading to the hospital for a checkup. Let's hope Hungry Howie's at least has him up on the Employee of the Month board.
Better call the folks at CSI:
Plenty of things have been known to fall from the sky -- birds, frozen waste from airplane lavatories, and even in some cases frogs or other marine animals. In Pam Hearne's case it was a severed human leg, complete with Adidas sneaker attached to the now-lifeless foot. Around 7 a.m. at her home in Floral Park, Long Island, she heard a thud outside near the garage, but thought nothing of it. Later that morning, however, she found the leg lying on the grass. Port Authority police said it appears to have belonged to a stowaway who climbed into the wheel well of South African Airlines Flight 203, which originated in Johannesburg and stopped in Dakar (in Senegal) before landing at Kennedy Airport at 7:30 a.m. Stowaways in wheel wells have a poor track record of success: Two people died flying into Kennedy in December 2003, and in August of 2001 a body fell onto an Island Park street from a plane traveling to the airport. According to the FAA, the survival rate of such stowaways since 1947 is about 20 per cent.
Paying to drive as well as to park:
If you live in Britain, don't be surprised if you see Transport Secretary Alistair Darling being burned in effigy. Why? Because the British minister's latest brain-wave to reduce congestion on the country's roads involves a "pay-as-you-go" system that would turn every road into a toll road -- and also allow the government to track your vehicle wherever it is. Using a "black box"-style transponder, the government would be able to determine how many miles you had driven on British roads, and drivers would pay up to 1.34 pounds per mile for the privilege. Mr. Darkling said that the charges would replace road and gas (sorry, petrol) taxes, and that the change was necessary to avoid "LA-style gridlock." Mr Darling outlined his proposals to the BBC, in a preview of a speech he plans to give on Thursday. Hopefully he will have plenty of bodyguards on hand at the speech, not to mention a bullet-proof limo.
Reader Peter Burszytn says he thinks a toll program isn't such a bad idea. "Sure it is going to be unpopular," he says, "but something really must be done about our gross overuse of the "free" resource - roads. At least Europe has gone some way to address the problem... here, the problem is the lack of a credible alternative to car transport." And Gary Floam from Baltimore says that "it's no worse than having to pay for electricity or health care on a as-you-need-it basis," and adds that "Brits are used to paying an annual fee for owning a radio or a television."
Reader James Strickland from Victoria, meanwhile, says that my original post is misleading, and notes that the program "is based on congestion -- pricing would vary by location and by time. You mention "up to 1.34 pounds per mile" but neglect to mention
that in some cases it would be as little as 0.02 pounds per mile." Point taken, James.
Sure we sympathize, Joe -- honest:
You may or may not have heard of Joe Francis before, but you've probably seen ads for his videos -- his company produces the popular (in some circles at least) Girls Gone Wild series of videos, in which uninhibited women in college party spots such as Fort Lauderdale and Cancun remove their clothing and perform other lascivious acts for the TV cameras. A business he started in 1997 as a 24-year-old unemployed student has become a multibillion-dollar empire, and Mr. Francis has become one of the jet-set crowd in Hollywood. Unfortunately, that has also made him the target of certain unsavoury elements, such as celebrity-loving thief Darnell Riley, who stole $300,000 in cash and jewellery from Mr. Francis's home in Bel Air. Among other things, sources say he also took a certain embarrasing video of Mr. Francis in various compromising positions -- and someone has been using that tape to blackmail him for months. A taste of one's own medicine isn't always that tasty, is it Joe?
Fortune cookie writer wanted:
Ever wonder who writes the fortunes that go in all those little cookies? Well, his name is Donald Lau, and he's a middle manager at Wonton Food Inc. of Long Island City in New York, the largest manufacturer of fortune cookies in North America. In fact, his real job is handling accounts receivable, insurance claims and so on. And he doesn't write many fortunes any more -- he says he burned out after writing them every day for more than a decade, a job he sort of fell into because he was the best English speaker at the company and had dabbled in writing poetry. His sources? Everything from the I Ching to subway advertisements. And now he's looking for a replacement, in case you're interested.
From mortgages to prince-hood:
Remember that movie with comedian Eddie Murphy, where he played an African prince who arrives in the United States like a fish out of water? Minnesota banker Marty Johnson knows a little about what that's like, but from the opposite side. Until recently, he was a happily-married, 40-year-old with a couple of kids in Eagan, Minnesota -- and then, after a little digging, he found out that he's actually something like a hereditary prince. His father, a Nigerian exchange student, had met his U.S-born mother while studying in Iowa and then the two had separated, at which point his mother put him up for adoption. It was her letter to the adoption agency that started the ball rolling, and led to Marty Johnson from Minnesota travelling to Nigeria, where he was celebrated by the townsfolk of his father's village, where his family had been chiefs for generations. And where he finally met his father. Way to go, Marty.
Only real people allowed:
If you can't stand those TV ads with movie actor Wilford Brimley -- the portly old guy with the handlebar mustache -- pitching diabetes medication or whatever it is, then you might sympathize with officials in Beijing. They've just decreed that advertisements for health or cosmetic products can't use celebrities pretending to be doctors or patients. "It's improper for public figures, including film and TV stars, to promote products in ads as consumers. They may easily mislead the public," the Xinhua news agency quoted a city official as saying. "Stars can have great effect on the public's impressions of products, and businesses deliberately use popular celebrity worship to stimulate people's desire to buy," the official said. Among the spots that the government has cracked down on is one claiming a drinkable calcium supplement made her young son smarter and taller. In addition to domestic celebrities, Chinese television often features ads with Western or European celebrities pitching various products. But now it's one place that is Brimley-free.
ClearChannel is its own worst critic:
It's no fun being a giant, continent-spanning conglomerate -- just ask ClearChannel, the U.S. radio behemoth. They get beaten up regularly because they own so many radio stations, and that gives them a lot of clout when it comes to what music gets played, and even what kinds of bands get to tour. This irritates music fans, of course, and many independent radio stations make it a point to take jabs at the company whenever possible -- including a new underground "pirate" radio station called Radio Free Ohio, based in Akron, which has been loudly insulting Clear Channel with broadcasts that "bleed" into nearby channels owned by the company. Unfortunately for ClearChannel, the enterprising folks at another station called WOXY took a look at who set up the pirate station's website, and found it was apparently owned by none other than ClearChannel itself. Nice try, guys.
There's plenty for everyone:
If you like the taste of catfish, you might be interested in talking to Tim Pruitt of Alton, Illinois. He was out fishing one day recently on the Mississippi River and caught a catfish big enough to feed a football team. Of course, catching this particular fish took awhile, since it dragged Tim and his boat -- along with his wife and a friend -- quite a distance down the river before they finally landed him. And it took all three of them to do so, since the as-yet-unnamed behemoth weighs 124 pounds. That means he is the largest catfish ever caught anywhere, beating the previous record holder by about 3 pounds, and beating the state's largest contender by more than 40 pounds. The giant catfish will be on display at Cabela's Outfitter store in Kansas City in case you feel like having a look.
When in doubt, pick a fight:
According to researchers at Oxford University, high-tech imaging technology developed for the NASA space program is helping decipher ancient Roman documents that were all but destroyed in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Scientists are subjecting the burned and tattered papyrus texts to "multi-spectral imaging" techniques using different wavelengths of light, and discovering lost manuscripts from Sophocles and other Greek thinkers. And what have they learned so far? Among other things, they have confirmed a long-held belief about the Greek armada that set sail during the Trojan Wars. According to a text by Archilochos, the world's greatest navy got lost and landed at a place called Mysia -- where they got into a battle, lost and had to regroup before setting sail for Troy.
Art gallery bandit strikes again:
The art-world prankster known as "Banksy" appears to have struck again, causing an outbreak of hilarity and embarrassment at the British Museum in London. His modus operandi is to sneak into high-end galleries and museums -- including the Tate Museum in London and several major galleries in New York -- and hang his own creations on the wall along with the rest of the art. In some cases, they aren't discovered until Banksy writes about them on his website. In the latest case, the British Museum hosted a work in its ancient Rome exhibit that appeared to be a prehistoric cave painting on a piece of rock. Upon closer inspection (okay, not that close, really) one could see -- next to the typical representation of a wooly mammoth with arrows sticking out of it -- a caveman figure pushing what was clearly a modern shopping cart, complete with wheels. The title of this new/old work? "Early Man Goes to Market."
A handy lesson for the kids:
Teachers often say that students learn more by seeing real-world examples of important lessons and concepts than they do by reading dry old books. It's possible that schoolteacher Marsha Schrieber of Pekin, Illinois -- a small town near Peoria -- intended to provide such a real-life lesson, and things just got out of hand. In any case, the 47-year-old Ms. Schrieber, who runs a Christian school in town called the New Hope Christian Academy, was arrested recently after police responded to an advertisement on a website that offered various sexual services and had a picture of the teacher. According to the police, Ms. Scrieber arrived at the door of her apartment in lingerie and arranged to provide sexual services for $200. Almost as surprising as the woman's background, the authorities said, was the price -- prostitutes in nearby Peoria reportedly only charge between $20 and $40.
Who's going to close it down?:
Just about every province and state has its big polluters, the ones who just won't listen to reason no matter how many times you tell them that they are poisoning the atmosphere with their toxic fumes. Hawaii has a special problem, however: it's biggest polluter by far is a volcano. The popular Kilauea volcano is also a major polluter, spewing more than 1,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and other toxic gases into the atmosphere each day, according to the Hawaii chapter of the American Lung Association -- about 6,000 times more than the next largest polluter in the state. The chemical haze then mixes with the atmosphere to create a toxic soup known locally as volcanic smog or "vog" and also mixes with the water offshore to create concentrations of hydrochloric acid. On certain "bad air" days, schools have to keep asthmatics and other sensitive children indoors, and the island's death rate from asthma is extremely high. But that volcano sure looks nice on a postcard.
Amnesia is a popular plot device in soap operas and bad movies, where it usually involves a character losing their memory after a sharp blow to the head, and then suddenly regaining it just as quickly. Real amnesia is a lot more complicated, however, and rarely has a neat and tidy ending. Authorities in the British town of Sheerness in Kent county are puzzling over a man who turned up one night after a bad storm, soaking wet and wearing an expensive suit, unable to tell authorities anything about himself. The only thing he appears to feel like doing is playing the piano. Given a piece of paper and pencils, the first thing he drew was a grand piano, and when staff at a local hospital got him in front of one, he played classical music and melancholy creations of his own for hours. Doctors say he seems happy at the piano, and that when he is away from it he becomes easily frightened, and has been known to curl up in a ball in the corner of his room. Some observers think he may have fallen overboard while on a boat during the storm, and that he may be a professional musician who was performing at an event before the accident.
Love gourmet food? Got five hours?:
If you happen to have four or five hours to kill, and you don't mind spending that entire time eating -- and paying handsomely for the privilege of doing so -- then a new restaurant called Alinea is right up your alley. Located in Chicago, it has been the talk of the food-obsessed world for the past six months, with hushed whispers and wild rumours about what it would be like when chef Grant Achatz finally opened it. Now that he has, gourmands are flying in from around the globe to spend up to five hours sampling his special 28-course "tasting menu." It's $175 apiece, in case you were wondering, but hey -- you're eating for five hours. On a per-hour basis, that's not bad. Oh yes, and $48 for the wine to go with it (unless you want to spring for the $2,500 bottle of 1992 Corton-Charlemagne Coche-Dury). And what kind of creations can you sample over those five hours? How about a single grape, smothered in peanut butter and encased in brioche, skewered on a giant steel spike? Or a single dollop of frozen organic sour cream, with shavings of frozen smoked salmon and a sorrel leaf, served in a specially created dish.
Hey, how did that law get there?:
The town of Boston is in the running to host a major conference of minority journalists, but there's just one sticking point: a law that has been on the books since the late 1600s. According to the 400-year-old law, all Native Americans who enter the city are supposed to be arrested and thrown in prison, unless they have permission from the Governor. Although antiquated and never used, the law has upset some among the group of journalists -- called Unity: Journalists of Color Inc. -- which includes journalists of Hispanic, African-American and Native American descent. The mayor and the convention authority are trying hard to have the law repealed by the state legislature so that they can host the 2008 conference, which would see close to 10,000 journalists descend on the town. Keep up the great work, Boston.
A raise would be nice as well:
Tired of working 10-hour days five or six days a week? If you're hairy and can walk on all fours while carrying someone on your shoulders, you might be able to get a job as a tourist-carrying donkey in the British beach resort of Blackpool. Then you would be legally entitled to a one-hour lunch break (hay provided) and would only have to work from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oh yes -- and you would get Fridays off as well, according to rules recently adopted by the Blackpool local council (the popular tourist area has been using about 200 donkeys to carry tourists since the late 1800s). Of course, you'd have to carry around some fat tourist all day, but maybe Fridays off every week would be worth it. And you get a free health check to make sure your hooves, ears, teeth and coat are alright. Not a bad deal.
I'll take the plain pine box, thanks:
Commodity prices have hit a lot of companies hard over the past year or so -- from CD makers such as Cinram to just about anyone who uses steel. But a coffin company? Apparently they aren't immune either. Hillenbrand Industries is the largest coffin maker in the United States, and also makes urns for ashes (if you choose not to go the coffin route), as well as hospital beds. On Monday, the company reported a profit that missed analysts' expectations, and gave a less-than-enthusiastic outlook for the current quarter. The culprit? Higher prices for wood and steel. According to Hillenbrand, gross profit margins fell during the quarter due to higher raw material prices, and the casket division was also hit by a higher percentage of people opting for cremation, as well as higher sales of cheaper veneer coffins. Things are tight all around, it seems.
Thanks for nothing, Hilary:
Noted socialite, columnist, former Republican congressman's wife and then Democratic supporter Arianna Huffington launched a kind of on-line salon/group blog called the Huffington Post this week, filled with a variety of postings by political types, actors, directors and other personalities, and one of the posts has gotten fans of music file-sharing hot under the collar. Hilary Rosen, former director of the Recording Industry Association of America, wrote that she loves her iPod -- but wishes that Apple CEO Steve Jobs would open up iTunes to non-proprietary forms of music. "The new iPod my girlfriend gave me is a trap," she writes. "Yeah, it is great looking and I really love the baby blue leather case but when, oh when, will Steve Jobs let me buy music from somewhere other than the Apple iTunes store and put it on my iPod?" Of course, Hilary and her pals at the RIAA were the driving force behind pushing on-line music into separate camps protected by proprietary formats and DRM or "digital rights management" protection. Thanks for the input, Hilary.
Hostage-taking sure makes a guy hungry:
If only all hostage negotiations could work out as well as this one - not to mention all strikes and labour talks, for that matter. Negotiators in the Tasmanian region of Australia were able to successfully win the release of several hostages from a local prison in the state capital of Hobart -- by providing the prisoners who had laid seige to the prison with free pizzas. Fifteen, to be exact. A group of prisoners had seized a guard and a number of other prisoners on Saturday and held them hostage for 40 hours, demanding a number of changes to their living and working conditions. Among other things, the convicts at Hobart prison wanted more job opportunities and also wanted to be paid more for their work behind bars. No word who thought of the pizza strategy, but after receiving the pies the prisoners released their hostages and agreed to go back to their cells. Expect the phrase "so good it frees hostages" to appear in pizza chain's advertising any day now.
In fact, ban "not paying attention" period:
Plenty of jurisdictions across North America and in Europe have banned talking on a cellphone while driving, on the assumption that doing so causes accidents, because drivers are paying too much attention to their mobiles and not enough to their driving. Germany is one of the countries with such a ban, and that has sparked a call for bans on other things that might contribute to a lack of attention on the road -- such as cigarettes, for example. Several lawmakers in Germany are hoping to extend the ban on cellphones to cover cigarettes, arguing that fumbling with smokes and lighters and other such paraphernalia has the same effect on a driver's attention as talking on a cell phone does. Rainer Hillgaertner, the head of a German driving association, scoffed at the idea however. "Eating chocolate bars, bananas or fish sandwiches while driving is also dangerous," he said. A fair point, Rainer -- and incidentally, that's quite the diet you've got there.
And we want a share buyback too:
The popular alternative rock band Linkin Park is known for many things - its edgy sound, hit songs such as Crawling and One Step Closer, and so on - but now it has added a new line to its resume: stock-market analyst. The band (or its agents) have come out with a strongly-worded criticism of the share offering planned by its record label, Warner Music. According to the band, the financial interests behind the company - including former Seagram's heir Edgar Bronfman Jr. - just want to cash out and aren't going to put any of the proceeds of the $1.4-billion offering into the label or its stars. Linkin Park appears to be looking for a little cut of the IPO action, saying its album sales of 35 million or so over the past three years have accounted for 10 per cent of Warner Music's business. Warner begs to differ, however. It says the band only accounted for about 3 per cent of its business, that it has been "well compensated" and that Linkin Park may be trying to get out of its contract with the label, which requires it to come up with four more albums for Warner. Bummer, dude.
Technically, you only need one convention:
An enterprising young scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is doing his best to raise awareness of a peculiar event he wants to host at MIT: a convention for time travellers. Time travel, of course, doesn't really exist - at least, not right now. But that doesn't mean it won't exist at some point in the future, MIT student Amal Dorai reasons. So why not host a convention, and then whenever time travel is invented, travellers who hear about the convention can come back (or forward, as the case may be) and take part. In that sense, you would only ever need one convention, since anyone from any time could eventually make their way there. The only problem, he points out, is that there's no way to ensure that future time travellers find out about the convention - newspapers and the Internet may not even exist any more. So Mr. Dorai is recommending that people try to publicize the convention by other means, such as slipping pieces of paper mentioning the date and location into old books. And just in case, he recommends putting the longitude and latitude of MIT - since it may not exist in the distant future either. Nice work, Amal.
Hamilton offers Apple rights to name "Tiger":
There's plenty of Tigers in the world. There's Tony, of course - the guy who sells Frosted Flakes - and the similar-looking animal that pushes Esso gas. And then there's a certain Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, who is known as a half-decent golfer, and uses tiger-style head covers for his clubs. And now, Steve Jobs has brought out another tiger: Apple's fancy new operating system, which is code-named Tiger. The only problem there is that TigerDirect, a retailer and distributor of discount brand-name electronics, is kind of upset about the name and has launched a suit against Apple. On Monday, another well-known technology guru - none other than Bob Young, co-founder of the Red Hat software company - offered to help Steve with his little problem by giving him the right to use the word "Tiger," a right Mr. Young figures he holds by virtue of his ownership of a little football team called the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. According to Mr. Young, the team has been using the name since about 1869 or so, which gives him as much claim as anyone. Way to go, Bob.
Cut it out with the "town from hell" thing:
Pikeville is a charming little town of 6,000 or so nestled in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky, a town that calls itself "Kentucky's Mountain Treasure." But a recent television program on the Arts & Entertainment Network had a different name for it, one that the residents of Pikeville aren't too crazy about. The A&E show "City Confidential," which profiles different towns and cities across the U.S., called the Kentucky burg "the town from hell" in a recent episode. Needless to say, as City Manager Donovan Blackburn pointed out in a letter to the network, "being labeled the town from hell can not be interpreted in any way as positive." And why did A&E label the town thusly? Because it focused on a 1997 incident in which six local teens - now serving life sentences in prison - kidnapped and murdered a Tennessee couple and their 6-year-old daughter (the couple's 2-year-old son also was kidnapped and shot, but survived). The intro to the show said that the six "took a road trip to hell" when they embarked on the killings, which had Satanic overtones. I guess an intro that said "took a road trip to Kentucky's Mountain Treasure" probably wouldn't have had the right tone for the show.
Get your bids in for this Romanian football club:
Dinel Staicu just can't seem to get a break. The Romanian man owns a football team, Universitatea Craiova, that was recently elegated to the second division -- after more than 42 years in the first division. After enduring a lot of humiliation for this loss of reputation, he decided to give the team away, so he sent a letter to the local council offering them the team. "May you have more luck with it than I have," he wrote. "I am fed up with the whole business, it is no fun losing all the time and being the butt of everybody's jokes and abuse." Unfortunately, the town council refused the kind offer. "It is true that we offered to buy the club from him before Christmas, but at that time he did not want to part with it," said the mayor. "Now it's in the second division he can't wait to get rid of it." Mr. Staicu now says he plans to put the team up on eBay.
Maybe they should have just called it "The Shed":
Swedish furniture giant IKEA has had some issues in the past with the personal-style names it gives its products, but nothing like the hot water an Austrian building-products chain has found itself in. In the company's catalogue, the item that has caused all the fuss is a handsome-looking wooden tool-shed made of square beams, with a peaked roof and windows. Unfortunately, the name that BauMax chose for its shed is Mauthausen - the name of a town that housed one of the worst Nazi concentration camps, where more than 100,000 people were put to death. The retailer's chief executive officer, Karlheinz Essl, expressed "deepest regret" and said the shed would be renamed the "Linde" or Linden tree. He also said that the chain would recall tens of thousands of catalogues and remove the original name. Mr. Essl said the name was a simple mistake, but according to one report a BauMax employee at one of the chain's stores responded to a question about the shed by saying "that's our gas house." Sounds like Mr. Essl needs to change more than just a name.
You don't want to cross the Iron Lady:
Ever had someone who is out to get you, and you just don't know how to describe their attempts at character assasination, etc.? Here's a tip: Don't describe it as "treachery with a smile on its face," or you might get a nasty letter from the Iron Lady herself - that is, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - or at least from her solicitors. That's what the BBC got recently, after using that particular phrase more than 400 times over four days in promoting a series they called "Thatcher Week." Apparently, the Beeb didn't realize that it was transgressing on the Iron Lady's rights - in this case, a copyright on that particular phrase, which appeared in her televised memoirs, called "The Downing Street Years." The British public broadcaster has reportedly offered compensation to Ms. Thatcher and the co-owner of the copyright, a production company called Fine Art, but a spokesman called the offer "derisory." For all you non-Brits, that means "not good."
Excuse me, ma'am? Would you mind...:
The Yangon Zoo in Myanmar (formerly Burma) had a problem. Three Bengal tiger cubs were born to one of the zoo's residents, but their mother took a dislike to them and killed one, then refused to nurse the others. What to do? The zoo tried feeding the young cubs with a bottle but they didn't like it much. Then along came new mother Hla Htay. She felt so sorry about the cubs she offered to help out, and now she has three hungry infants to feed - a seven-month old baby boy and two Bengal tiger cubs. Three times a day, the Myanmar housewife goes to the zoo where she breastfeeds the hungry black-striped, orange-brown cubs. "The cubs are just like my babies," she told Fuji TV. "It's not scary at all." The zoo says the breastfeeding will stop by the end of April - or when the cubs start teething. Ouch.
Going to the mall? Bring a parent:
What would a suburban shopping mall be without hordes of sullen teenagers milling around looking for trouble and taking up all the seats at the food court on Friday night? A mall in New Hampshire thinks it would be a lot nicer, so it has officially banned any child under 16 from entering the mall without adult supervision on Friday or Saturday evening. Security officers at the Pheasant Lane Mall have been handing out fliers to mall-goers outlining the company's "general code of conduct," which requires anyone under the age of 16 to have an adult with them between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Friday or Saturday nights. Security guards will be stationed at the mall's entrance to enforce the guidelines.
The millionaire train conductor:
Walter O'Rourke makes several million dollars a year from his investments in real estate and insurance, and owns several homes, including a log cabin in Delaware. But he doesn't spend much time there -- instead, according to a recent profile in the New York Times, he likes to spend his time at his real job: working as a conductor on a passenger train in New Jersey, punching tickets for $52,000 a year. A lifelong train buff born into a family of railway workers, Mr. O'Rourke went to law school and then bought a small railway maintenance company. He sold it for a million dollars, which he invested in real estate. In 1978 he moved to Saudi Arabia and spent a decade running a freight railway there - as well as a small passenger train he built to entertain the local children. He returned to the U.S. and got a job working as a conductor, despite the fact that he had more than enough money to live on. He even owns his own railroad, a passenger route in West Virginia, and has a 4,000-square-foot basement train workshop at his home. But he worked on the New Jersey line until he reached retirement age anyway, just for the love of it. Way to go, Walter.
Call a truce so we can trade weasels:
Yes, it's true that North and South Korea are still technically at war, and still technically hate each other's guts and so forth, but that doesn't mean the Siberian weasels have to suffer, does it? Let's back up a bit. First of all, who knew there were such things as Siberian weasels in the first place? Well, there are, and they are kind of cute in a weasely sort of way -- according to people who know, they can "be found throughout eastern Asia, north to the Sea of Okhotsk, and south to Kwangtung in China." In any case, they were one of the things that North and South Korea decided to trade recently to replenish depleted animal stocks in either country. The North sent Asiatic black bears, lynx, coyotes, African ponies and the popular Siberian weasel, while the South chipped in with some hippos, red kangaroos, wallabies, llamas and guanacos. Just one question though: What the heck is a guanaco?
Update: Helpful reader Vijay Kukreja writes to say that a guanaco is an animal related to the camel family that is mainly found in South America near the Andes and is endangered. "To me, it looks like a cross between a sheep and a camel," he says. Thanks for clearing that up, Vijay. And Bob Lyons writes to say that the guanaco is well known for spitting a disgusting stream of saliva when it gets angry, which is why the water cannons used by police to break up riots in Latin America are often referred to as "guanacos." Thanks for that, Bob.
They may be cute, but they're wily:
It may not rank up there with the bighorn sheep or the mountain lion when it comes to a challenge, but Wisconsin is reportedly thinking about allowing the hunting of cats. Are local hunters a little hard up for something to bag with their (totally legal) assault weapons and other firearms? Not according to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, which is considering the move. The problem is not Fluffy or Princess, the fat Himalayans with the bells around their necks, but "feral" or wild cats that roam the wilderness after being abandoned by their owners. Some rural residents complain that these wild animals kill millions of songbirds a year, and that they should be taken care of just like any other pest. Estimates of the number of birds killed range from 8 million to more than 200 million (okay, it's not an exact science). Don't get out your six-guns and go hunting for cat just yet, though: the measure still has to go before the state legislature.
Giddy up there, robot!:
Maybe "giddy up" isn't what jockeys say to their camels when racing through the deserts of Dubai, but it's close enough. In any case, the leaders of the United Arab Emirates (which includes Dubai, Abu Dhabi and five other Middle Eastern emirates) will soon have to program the appropriate phrase into their camel-riding robots rather than teaching it to their human jockeys, because the UAE plans to replace the child riders it has used for centuries with robot camel jockeys. The mechanical jockeys being tested now are reportedly lightweight, and get their commands from the operator through a remote control system attached to the back of the camel. A successful test was recently undertaken under the watchful eye of His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (UAE president) and His Highness Shaikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum (UAE vice-president and ruler of Dubai). Giddy up!
Maybe you'd better just walk:
Anyone planning a trip to Peru should probably avoid the bus, according to a recent survey by a university in that country, which found that many drivers have psychopathic tendencies. Plenty of public transit systems likely have their share of unstable employees, but the San Marcos University in Lima determined that as many as 40 per cent of the 640 taxi and bus drivers surveyed suffered from psychological problems and showed psychopathic tendencies, such as aggressive, anxious and antisocial
behavior. "Drivers showed they would not feel any guilt in injuring or running over a pedestrian," the study added. Maybe they could do some kind of parallel research involving New York cab drivers.
Can you feel that in your temporal lobe?:
At this point it's still theoretical, but Japanese electronic giant Sony Corp. has received a patent on a technology that doesn't just produce sights and sounds on your television set or game console -- it beams them right into your brain. The patent describes how ultrasonic waves could be targeted at specific sectors of the brain in order to produce the illusion of colours, sound or even smells. Sony said the technology could someday be used to help the blind or deaf. "The pulsed ultrasonic signal alters the neural timing in the cortex," the patent states. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?
Watches are so last century, dude:
Everyone knows that cellular phones are a threat to the regular wired telephone, as more and more people switch to using their mobile as their primary phone -- but a threat to the wristwatch industry? That's what watch-makers are concerned about, according to comments made at a recent convention in (where else) Switzerland. It seems that more and more young people are avoiding watches altogether, and using their mobile phones to tell time, since many units now have a clock that is visible all the time -- even some flip phones can show the time when they are closed. According to the watch industry, this is bad news; so bad that a group of French watch-makers sued a phone company in that country for an advertising campaign that suggested people dump their watches and just use the phone. Maybe they should try building a phone into a nice watch -- Dick Tracy had pretty good luck with his a few decades ago.
Update: Reader and cell-phone fan Ian Currie wrote to say that he got rid of his watch in 1998, when he got his first cell phone. "I don't think I will buy another watch in the near future," he says. "The only time I miss the watch is at a formal function (the phone is off or deliberately left behind), where a phone is taboo, and I am trying to decide when is a good time to ditch!" The watch industry is no doubt saddened by your comments, Ian.
Reader Joe Swiniarski says the watch-less world can be a problem when "roadwarriors" with their all-in-one phones get on a plane and have to turn them off, and then must impose on their seatmate for the time. "Last time I answered that question," he says, "the guy said 'Nice watch! Can I have it!?'" And reader Andrew French says one handy feature of a cell phone's time display is that it "switches time zone automatically - at least mine does. [It] also makes a much
better alarm clock than any of the disasters supplied by hotels." Meanwhile, Long Chung says that most new smartphones "include an airplane standby feature whereby it turns off the phone portion i.e. no radio interference with the plane's navigational equipment, but still allows access to time etc." More bad news for watches.
Smarten yourself up with Google juice:
Just because you're a multibillion-dollar corporation doesn't mean you can't have a sense of humour, apparently. On Friday, Google launched what it called "Google Gulp" -- with the patented "Auto-Drink" feature -- a line of smart drinks designed to "maximize your surfing efficiency by making you more intelligent." The search engine giant goes on to describe the drinks as like "a DNA scanner embedded in the lip of your bottle reading all 3 gigabytes of your base pair genetic data in a fraction of a second, fine-tuning your individual hormonal cocktail in real time using our patented Auto-Drink™ technology, and slamming a truckload of electrolytic neurotransmitter smart-drug stimulants past the blood-brain barrier to achieve maximum optimization of your soon-to-be-grateful cerebral cortex."
Hey -- that post is taking our picture:
Thieves, brigands and other ne'er-do-wells in England have a new thing to worry about: the "shouting lamppost" and security camera gizmo designed by U.S.-based Q Star. So far, the units have been deployed in various neighbourhoods throughout London, Glasgow and Birmingham to deter miscreants and other unsavoury characters. The FlashCam 530 is a small device with a digital camera and a speaker that is triggered by motion. When movement up to 100 feet away is detected in a restricted area,
the unit starts taking pictures, a bright flash goes off and a loud voice warns intruders to "leave the area now" and informs them that their photograph is being taken. Q Star managing director Steve Galinsky, a former London bobby, told the Guardian newspaper: "They have already caught lots of people - some quite literally with their pants down... the look of utter amazement on their faces when the camera starts to shout is priceless."
Just wait for the "Hail of Locusts" ride:
British businesswoman Andrea Webster is on a mission to create a $300-million Biblical theme park in Yorkshire, something she says will be like "Disney meets the Bible." Ms. Webster said that children will be able to slide down the Tower of Babel, climb aboard Noah's Ark, part the Red Sea and try to drop Goliath with a laser-guided slingshot. They would also be able to experience "expulsion from the Garden of Eden," being swallowed by a whale, escaping from a lion's den and -- of course -- walking on water. All Ms. Webster needs now is a $300 donation from a million or so Christians in order to finance her theme park dream. Maybe she could buy up some of the old Biblical robots and other paraphernalia from U.S. evangelist Jimmy Bakker's theme park, which went bust back in the 1980s. Just one hint, though, kids: avoid the Sodom and Gomorrah ride.
Hey -- put that manhole cover down!:
So by now we've all read about how China is in the midst of an economic boom unlike any other, how the giant country is gobbling up steel, crude oil, copper and just about any other raw material it can get its hands on to cope with a building frenzy, etc. But that point really gets driven home when you read that Beijing is having to change the way they make manhole (or "person-hole") covers because people keep stealing them to sell them for scrap metal. According to the Xinhua news agency, more than a third of the city's 600,000 manhole covers were stolen last year alone - so now the city is working on a way to make the covers out of something that has no recycling value. Good luck with that.
Repeat after me: three point one four...:
You might think that this week was all about St. Patty's Day, with green beer and leprechauns prancing about and everyone putting on a fake accent. But St. Patrick isn't the only ancient figure being celebrated this week -- turns out Monday was Pi Day! And what is Pi Day, you might ask? It's a day devoted to that loveable mathematical constant, the one named after a Greek letter that looks like two legs with a curved hat, the one that describes the ratio of circle's circumference to its diameter. In case you were wondering, Monday was Pi Day because the date is 3/14 -- the first three digits of Pi (which goes on for an infinite number of digits, as it turns out). The website www.mathematicianspictures.com even dropped a symbolic Pi (from a symbolic crane) to celebrate the event. Who says mathematicians are no fun.
Paris Hilton comes to your cellphone:
Maybe she just wants to get revenge for having her personal information - including some rather, um... intimate photos - displayed on the Internet for everyone to see, after her T-Mobile Sidekick handheld device was hacked. Or perhaps Paris Hilton's management just sees an opportunity to make another couple of hundred million from their client's notoriety. In any case, the some-time actress and full-time heiress to the Hilton Hotels fortune will soon be appearing on mobile phones in the U.S., where Verizon Wireless has signed a deal to offer up to 26 tiny fragments - or "mobisodes" - of the TV show Simple Life to eager mobile-using fans of the program. According to the company, these will feature all-new content not available to regular watchers of that old-fashioned entertainment vehicle, the "television." What a brave new world we live in.
Luckily, the Dalai doesn't even use a PC:
The Chinese government has spent decades doing its best to smother any hint of dissent coming from Tibet, a country it continues to dominate against its will - and increasingly those efforts have been moving into cyberspace. According to a New York-based committee in support of a free Tibet, an e-mail message has been going around that purports to contain the text of an address His Holiness the Dalai Lama made on March 10 - but the message actually has an attachment that installs a "Trojan horse" virus, a piece of software that can monitor the activity on a computer and even steal passwords or other information. According to a group called the International Campaign for Tibet, the source of the e-mail was traced to the China Railway Telecommunications Center in Xicheng District, Beijing. Tibet isn't the only one subject to such electronic infiltration: the South Korean intelligence service says it has also traced viruses and Trojans back to a source in China.
Women can put things together too:
It's kind of hard to imagine the Prime Minister picking on the Leon's furniture chain about how it does business, but then Leon's isn't in quite the same league as IKEA, which is eclipsed in Swedish mythology only by the legendary pop-music group ABBA (hey Sweden, what's with the whole four-letter-name thing?). Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik reportedly told a local newspaper that the giant furniture chain is sexist because it only shows male models putting together furniture in its catalogues. According to a spokeswoman, the chain was concerned about offending Muslim customers, but the prime minister wasn't having any of that. "That's not good enough. Promoting attitudes of equality is at least as important in Muslim countries. They should just change this," said Mr. Bondevik. Another spokesperson reportedly said that the giant chain was looking into the issue. Way to go, IKEA.
Bet they would have great meetings:
In a world where a former muscle-bound, monosyllabic movie actor is the governor of a major state, perhaps it shouldn't come as any surprise that the World Bank appears to be considering naming a rock star president of the global trade and financial institution. According to U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow, the bank is thinking hard about U2 frontman Bono, otherwise known as Paul Hewson of Dublin, Ireland. Mr. Snow spoke highly of the rock legend - as have other international development types, including Canada's own prime minister and former finance minister Paul Martin. If another former musician named Bono can become a congressman (the late Sonny Bono) perhaps there's no reason why a rock star shouldn't head an institution whose purpose is to harmonize trade and finances among the world's countries. The two seem to go together like ham and cheese, don't they? Now if only someone could get Mr. Hewson to explain why he wears those coloured sunglasses all the time, even indoors. Maybe it's a political thing.
Update: Faithful reader and dedicated U2 fan Diana Pereira notes that U2 has agreed to play Ottawa on their Vertigo tour after a personal request from their old pal Paul Martin. The drive to get U2 was fueled by a local radio station called BOB-FM that said it would change its name to PAUL-FM if Mr. Martin agreed to pull some strings. Of course, true U2 fans (such as Ms. Pereira) not only know that Bono's real name is Paul, they also know that his father - who died a few years ago on Bono's wedding anniversary - was named Bob.
Another reader wrote in to say that it's unlikely anyone at the World Bank is seriously considering the idea of Bono as president -- and this particular reader should know. Robert S. Stewart says he was the one who snuck Bono into his first World Bank meeting in 2000 in Prague and asked him how he would deal with Third World debt. Bono's answer: "God, don't ask me, I'm just a rock star, you know, sex, drugs, rock and roll. I wouldn't have a clue where to start... I just sing the music." Thanks for that, Robert.
Watch it, or you'll get a plasma beam you-know-where:
Would you rather be shot by the riot squad, or hit with a plasma beam that causes unbearable pain, but doesn't actually hurt you? Not much of a choice, perhaps, but the U.S. military is working hard to give it to you anyway, as part of the government's research into "non-lethal" weapons that can be used for crowd control and other purposes. According to an article in New Scientist magazine, the U.S. Navy is funding research into what are called "pulsed energy projectiles," which cause pain and temporary paralysis when the plasma beam hits soft tissue. Now the researchers are trying to jack up the pain so that it causes "peak nociceptor activation" - in other words, the maximum amount of pain possible without causing injury or death. Sounds like fun.
Hey, put a blanket over that thing:
World-famous architect (and Canadian) Frank Gehry is well known for the soaring, curving metallic buildings he creates to much fanfare, such as the museum in Bilbao, Spain. But that kind of structure has a couple of unfortunate side effects, at least when it is built in downtown Los Angeles - like the Walt Disney Concert Hall, for example. Apparently, passers-by are complaining that the sidewalk outside the concert hall becomes hot enough to fry an egg from the reflected glare (140 degrees Fahrenheit, according to one report), and condominium owners in nearby buildings have also complained about the glare from the shiny metal sides of the structure. So, with Mr. Gehry's permission, the city has hired workers with hand-sanders to dull certain spots on the $274-million building so that it isn't so much of a magnifying glass.
You're out of order, Jim - Dad says so:
You may think you have it tough around your house, but spare a moment's thought for what things must be like when everybody gets together at the Dolan house. The Dolan family happens to control Cablevision Systems, a large New York-based cable company, where father Charles is the chairman and son James is the chief executive officer (the family also owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks). The problem is that Charles Dolan has spent the past couple of years championing a high-definition satellite service called Voom - despite the fact that it has lost more than half a billion dollars and only has revenues of about $15-million - while son Jim has been trying to shut it down. Charles even offered to buy the assets from Cablevision along with his other son, Tom (can you guess which one the chairman likes better?) but Jim finally persevered and the Cablevision board shut the division down. Should be a fun Easter for the Dolan family.
And no parachuting by widows, either:
Far be it from me to celebrate the breaking of laws with impunity, but you have to admire the resolve of two students from Britain, who have made it their goal this summer to break at least 45 U.S. laws - the stupidest ones they can find. "There are thousands of stupid laws in the United States, but we are limiting ourselves to breaking about 45 of them," said Richard Smith, from Cornwall. He and his friend Luke Bateman plan to spend eight weeks breaking dumb laws such as the one that prevents whale-hunting in Utah (a landlocked state). He says he got the idea while playing a board game called Balderdash, which asks players to complete the phrase: "It is illegal in Florida for a widow to ... " The answer is to parachute on a Sunday.
What's in a name? Plenty, when it's Bin Laden:
It might seem a little odd that someone would actually fight for the right to use the name Bin Laden, which will forever be associated with international terrorism and the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. But Yeslam Bin Laden, a long-time Swiss resident and half-brother to terrorist leader Osama, didn't like the fact that he was given trademark rights to the name in Switzerland just a few months before the attacks, and then had those rights revoked by the Swiss government - who argues that allowing him to use the name would "morally wound" the Swiss people and harm public order. Mr. Bin Laden, just one of hundreds of half-brothers and sisters who are part of the Bin Laden clan (which has formally renounced Osama's conduct) appealed and his appeal was upheld. He says he fought the case based on principle, and doesn't have any immediate plans to sell products using the Bin Laden name -- for what are probably obvious reasons.
Imagine that, TV isn't realistic:
The proliferation of shows based on forensic evidence, such as CSI and its various offspring, have created unrealistic expectations not only among families whose loved ones have been victims of crime, but among police officers and juries as well, actual forensic scientists say. Not only does everyone seem to think that complicated cases involving hundreds of hair, saliva and other samples can be solved in under an hour, but the amount of forensic evidence being collected and submitted to labs has skyrocketed, on the assumption that it can all be processed as easily as it is on TV. At a recent conference in Washington, a forensic expert said that between 200,000 and 300,000 DNA samples are currently backlogged at U.S. research labs, part of an overall evidence backlog that is likely 10 times that size. But did anyone mention how every show has a foxy blonde scientist who always wears tight T-shirts, and every lab has more high-tech equipment than NASA?
Call it the "Sideways effect":
If you're having trouble getting hold of some pinot noir wine - or finding that prices have been climbing - you can blame the popular movie Sideways, which starred Paul Giamatti as a wine snob on a road trip with his old college roommate (played by Thomas Haden Church) through California's Central Coast wine country. According to wineries and industry watchers, sales of pinot noir have been boosted by the film, which sees Giamatti's character singing the praises of the finicky grape over its more popular cousin, the merlot. One winery in the Central Coast region said that demand for cases of pinot noir jumped by more than 135 per cent in a single month.
Sentiment doesn't mean much:
Surveys that claim to measure "consumer confidence" are closely watched by many investors, analysts and economists as a sign of how well the economy is doing, but at least one economist - University of Richmond professor and former Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia vice-president Dean Croushore - says they might as well look somewhere else. While the University of Michigan and Conference Board surveys give investors a sense of how consumers feel about the economy in general, they are virtually useless in predicting what those consumers are going to do. As Prof. Croushore put it: "People may say they're dissatisfied with the economy, but then they go out and buy a car." In case you're wondering, the University of Michigan surveys performed the worst research when it came to predicting future consumer spending.
Update: Faithful reader Frank McGillicuddy points out that investors may want to pay attention to consumer sentiment surveys - despite their lack of predictive ability - if only because other people pay attention to them, and their behaviour can affect the market. In other words, "watch what you think others are watching." Thanks, Frank.
A new use for GPS trackers:
Global positioning satellite (or GPS) receivers are used for all kinds of things, from keeping track of the car you just rented at the airport to finding lost luggage. One disturbed individual even duct-taped a transmitter to his ex-girlfriend's car so he could track her location. Now a Massachusetts politician has proposed using GPS technology to track gangsters and those convicted of domestic abuse. Under the bill proposed by Lieutenant-Governor Kerrey Healey, courts would allow those who violate a restraining order to be fitted with a GPS tracker that would alert authorities if the individual entered a restricted area (their ex-wife's home, a child's school, etc.). Not only that, but the cost of $10 a day would be paid for by the offender.
A world record for tsunami safety:
As a local development effort in 2002, the Indian village of Naluvedapathy decided to try and win a Guinness World Record by planting tens of thousands of trees. Villagers won the record with 80,244 saplings - and those saplings turned into trees, which then helped to save their lives when the tsunami hit the Tamil Nadu region of India on December 26. Many villages and towns on the coast were crushed or swept away, but Naluvedapathy residents were protected by the canopy of trees they had planted. "We were saved by these trees," said 70-year-old resident Marimathu. It's a good thing they didn't decide to win the world record for pogo-stick jumping or longest fingernails.
Need money? Bring a hockey bag:
Everybody has probably joked from time to time about someone who lucked out somehow, and how it was like "someone backed a truck full of money" up to their door. That's apparently what it was like to work on the U.N.-sponsored resconstruction of Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion. According to one high-level participant with the Coalition Provisional Authority, because the country lacked a functioning bank system, contractors were routinely paid with huge piles of dollar bills that had been "liberated" from dictator Saddam Hussein's many palaces. Some were told to come to a dropoff point with a gunny-sack to carry the stacks of bills - millions of dollars in some cases - while others were literally handed money from the back of a truck. According to the CPA staffer, hardly anyone kept track of what happened to the money after it left Saddam Hussein's vaults. Nice work if you can get it.
Update: A reader named Mark Simone wrote in to say he was disturbed that I would make fun of the looting that apparently went on in Iraq. "Do you think this is funny?" he asked. "Somehow I don't think the people who are struggling over there without provisions or power would find this humourous." It isn't funny at all, Mark. If anything, I was trying to point out the absurdity of the situation, not to make light of the suffering in Iraq.
A little spritz and away you go:
An Australian university has developed an aerosol testosterone spray that appears to increase the sex drive in women with low libido. Researchers at Monash University in Melbourne found that while the spray didn't increase the frequency of sexual encounters, it "increased significantly the number of episodes reported as satisfactory." The average increase was "two extra satisfactory events per month," according to women's health professor Susan Davis. Although usually associated with men, testosterone is present in both men and women and affects the part of the brain responsible for sexual motivation. The only drawback of the spray was that some patients reported an increase in body hair. And a sudden desire to watch football on the weekend? Just curious.
Bernie wants to know who's stealing coffee:
The prosecution in the multibillion-dollar fraud case against former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers is doing its best to portray the former Edmonton basketball coach as a detail-obsessed chief executive, in order to prove that he ordered former chief financial officer Scott Sullivan to fiddle with the giant telecom company's books. But they may have gone just a little too far. According to Mr. Sullivan, the former CEO of one of the world's largest telecom companies started grilling staff about their coffee habits. "There's more coffee filters than coffee bags, and that means employees are taking coffee home," he reportedly said. Not long afterward, Mr. Ebbers had the company coffee service cancelled. Another witness said that the WorldCom CEO was also suspicious about the long walks that some employees were taking around a pond at company headquarters, walks he said were a drain on productivity. He also reportedly bragged about how he had replaced the water in public water-cooler bottles with tap water "and no one noticed." Nice work, Bernie.
No pictures of the art, please:
If you're thinking about taking a snapshot of that piece of sculpture in the public square on your next trip somewhere, you might want to think again. Someone tried to take a picture of a local sculpture in Chicago and was told he couldn't. A recent article in the Chicago Reader (described here) said photojournalist Warren Wimmer was stopped by security when he tried to take a picture of Anish Kapoor's well-known sculpture, Cloud Gate (a shiny metal blob known locally as "the Bean"). Ben Joravsky, the author of the Reader article, contacted park officials for an explanation and received this response: "The copyrights for the enhancements in Millennium Park are owned by the artist who created them. As such, anyone reproducing the works, especially for commercial purposes, needs the permission of that artist." Take a picture of that.
Update: Reader Peter Wells notes that while these kinds of shenanigans might go over down south, taking pictures of public sculpture is explicitly allowed in Canada under the Copyright Act, which says "It is not an infringement of copyright... for any person to reproduce, in a painting, drawing, engraving, photograph or cinematographic work" any piece of architecture or "a sculpture or work of artistic craftsmanship." Thanks, Peter.
No fun allowed in U.S. camp:
Remember all the hijinks that Hawkeye Pierce and his pals used to get up to in between stitching people up during the Korean War (supposedly) on the TV show M.A.S.H.? They cooked up home-made liquor in their tent, ran beauty contests with the nurses, tried to sneak in on Major Houlihan while she was in the shower - you name it. Wacky fun, it was. Well, there will be none of that at Camp Bucca, one of the U.S. detainee camps in Iraq. News that army types had a mud-wrestling party apparently didn't sit well with the brass, despite the fact that alcohol was not involved and none of the inmates in the camp saw any of the muddy action. So were the organizers disciplined? Well, a few guards were reprimanded. But the real heat fell on the female guards who did the wrestling in their underwear - one was demoted for indecent exposure.
Need any custom spells cast?:
Anyone who's had a bad day at work has probably thought about other jobs they could go out and find. On-line community and classified-ad site Tribe.net has a collection of jobs you might be interested in - and/or unusual services you might feel a hankering for. A recent list included "custom spells cast to get money, win love or curse enemies" and someone who advertised that they will "clean your chimney dressed like a gargoyle." Another offered to "bother your neighbours for $20 an hour plus expenses," while someone else said that they needed a "psychic to perform a dog seance" for $50, and a somewhat conflicted person advertised "editor/journalist by day, exotic dancer by night." But best of all was this recent listing: A "fire-breathing, fire-eating ordained minister for your wedding."
And buy a bunch for your friends too:
Almost every company has probably run into a dry spell, where its products just don't seem to be selling that well. So what do you do? Well, you could try lowering your prices, or improving the quality of your products - or you could do what Sanyo has decided to do, and order your employees to buy your products. The Japanese seller of stereos, kitchen appliances and insurance (among other things) has told its senior executives that they should spend up to 2 million yen (about $20,000 U.S.) on Sanyo products, and that more junior employees should also spend a set percentage of their income. Oh, and they should buy some for their friends and family too, the company helpfully suggested. It could be worse, of course - those Sanyo employees could work for a fertilizer company.
Bill gets cash, U.S. economy feels better:
Did you feel it, just now - that rush of joy through the U.S. economy? And why not, since personal incomes rose by a record 3.7 per cent in December. There's just one problem, however: the vast majority of that increase came as a result of a one-time dividend from Microsoft Corp., a $32-billion (U.S.) whopper of a dividend the software giant paid out to its shareholders. Excluding that, U.S. incomes only rose by about 0.6 per cent. The dividend came about because Microsoft decided last year sometime that it didn't really need the $40-billion cash pile it had accumulated, now that its big anti-trust battles are behind it, so it decided to hand it out to stockholders. The largest single beneficiary of this special dividend, of course, was co-founder Bill Gates, who got a little over $3.3-billion. He donated the entire sum to charity. Nice work, Bill - and the U.S. economy thanks you as well.
We're sure it was just a misunderstanding:
The shareholder battle involving Molson's bid to join forces with (or be taken over by) U.S.-based brewer Adolph Coors has been dragging on for some time now, with much rhetoric from both critics and supporters of the deal about how it will either restore Molson's faded fortunes or how it's a gigantic ripoff (Shareholders approved it Friday). The first vote failed, but then Coors boosted the dividend portion of its offer and shareholders have now apparently agreed to the deal. But were some of those who opposed it unable to make their voices heard? Faithful reader Robert Gibb said his voting package from the company somehow wound up getting delivered to a local Molson salesman, who was more than happy to drop it off, and to bend his ear about how he was voting for the merger. Mr. Gibb said he had already voted against it on-line, and says he heard from others that their voting packages also went astray. After the bid was increased, his second voting package was also delayed, making its way to him the day after the on-line vote had been closed. Coincidence? No doubt. Anyway, we're sure the two companies will be very happy together.
Would that be cash or cheque, Mr. Pinochet?:
It sounds like the high-end, Washington-based Riggs Bank was a financial institution worth having in your corner... if you were a money-laundering dictator, that is. According to charges that are currently before the court, executives at the bank - which has made its reputation by catering to high-ranking diplomats - helped dictators such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Equatorial Guinea leader Teodoro Obiang hide their assets in offshore accounts while their governments were being overthrown. The U.S. attorney's office alleges that Riggs Bank officers created hidden accounts and even changed signatures on documents to hide the ill-gotten gains of these and other foreign "diplomats." The bank pleaded guilty on Thursday to failing to report suspicious activity in its accounts, and has offered to pay $16-million to settle the case (on top of a $25-million fine that was levied by the Treasury Department). The judge hasn't said whether he is willing to accept the settlement or not.
Would you like a virus with your Lexus?:
For better or worse, we've pretty much all gotten used to being infected by computer viruses by now, and there have even been reports of malicious programs being executed on cellphones. But this is a first: Cyber-security types are concerned that the on-board computers in high-end Lexus cars could become infected with viruses sent to them from a cellphone via the Bluetooth wireless standard. So what, right? So they might screw up the timing on your engine, or remove your power steering suddenly, or give you the wrong directions to the hockey arena on your LCD display. Unless, of course, the on-board computer controls your brakes. But try not to think about that too much.
Super Bowl ads to be prim and proper:
For awhile there, even non-football fans tuned in to the Super Bowl because they wanted to see the ads, which companies spent millions of dollars on in an attempt to outdo each other (and to justify the $1-million or so they paid for a 30-second spot). Apple Computer helped create this trend with its landmark "1984" ad, which pitted the company's personal computer against the then-dominant IBM PC. More recent entrants have included a spot featuring a horse-drawn-carriage owner lighting his mount's fart on fire, and a dog biting a man in the crotch so he would drop his beer. But it seems this year's ads are likely to be a lot more tame, thanks to the furore over the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" from last year and the fuss over a recent football commercial featuring nudity (both of which resulted in fines from the FCC). "This year, I think most advertisers are going to be incredibly well-behaved," said ad executive Jeff Goodby. Well that doesn't sound like much fun.
Update: As more than one reader has pointed out, including Ian Lim, Paul LaBarbera and Steven Miller, most Canadians don't have to worry about being offended (or not) by the Super Bowl ads, since Canadian rules allow broadcasters to replace those ads with Canadian ones - unless, like Ian, you go over to someone's house and watch the game on their satellite dish. Just another way in which the government helpfully protects you from those nasty American influences.
Figures it would be a Monday:
How are you feeling today. Stressed? Don't feel bad. A researcher at Cardiff University has determined that the 24th will be the worst day of the year. Cliff Arnalls came up with a formula that combines several factors which go together to make January a bad month: foul weather, a letdown from the holidays, a build-up of debt from the holidays, failed attempts to keep New Year's resolutions and the time until payday. after crunching the numbers, the 24th came out as the worst day of the worst month. And the fact that it turned out to be a Monday as well, he says, was just a coincidence. An unhappy coincidence, needless to say.
EA Games bets on the future:
Do you know what you'll be doing 15 years from now? Will you still be playing sports-simulation games on the PlayStation 12 or Nintendo's brain-implant holographic display unit? Video game maker Electronic Arts hopes you will, and that the brand ESPN will still mean something, because it just agreed to pay $750-million for a 15-year license to the ESPN name. That's different from the deals it and other game-makers have signed with sports leagues such as the NFL, which gives them exclusive rights to games based on league teams. The ESPN deal just gives Electronic Arts the right to use the network's brand name in sporting games. Should come in handy for the 2020 Space Olympics.
Would you like bamboo shoots with that?:
Kentucky Colonel Harland Sanders, with his string tie and Wild Bill Hickock-style goatee, doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would appeal to the average fast-food consumer in Beijing, but it seems that China has an insatiable desire for the Colonel's deep-fried chicken goodness. At least according to Yum Brands, which owns the rights to the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. The chain is opening outlets as fast as it can, and has even outpaced McDonald's when it comes to growth in the Chinese market. Sales from its China outlets made up more than half of Yum's international sales last year, and the unit accounted for 15 per cent of the parent's operating profit. In place of coleslaw - not a popular item in China, apparently - KFC outlets offer bamboo shoots or lotus root.
Why do you care about Nortel?:
Why do we care so much about Nortel Networks? There are plenty of other Canadian companies out there that deserve attention and don't get as much as they should, companies that didn't fiddle with their accounting to generate bonuses, or overstate sales by billions of dollars. Why does Nortel get so much ink, and why do people seem to care so deeply?
Maybe it's because Nortel was once an industry leader, a global titan, and has fallen from grace - a tale that smacks of hubris. Maybe it's because we want a story that sounds a little like Enron or Global Crossing, to prove that we can have a world-class scandal. Or maybe it's because Nortel was once a great company, and could be again if it could only get its act together. Here's what some readers said in answer to the question "Why do you care about Nortel?"
Jim Rawling was perhaps the most blunt. He said simply: "I don't care." Dominic (who didn't give his last name) waxed more poetic, saying "We care about Nortel in the same way that we care about an ex-lover who is now in jail. We all have - or know someone who has - lost money on it." David Woodiwiss says he is "a failed opportunist... I can only have hope for the future, so on I read."
Laura Wellon says she is fascinated by the fight to return Nortel to health. She says she cares because "the task at hand appears SO insurmountable that any person or team that is working to get Nortel back on its feet is a fight worth paying the price of admission to watch." Mark Egtesadi figures there is something more base at stake in our interest. He says "Nortel is the slot machine of the stock market and we are addicted to it."
Alan Manzer says that he thinks "Our interest in the Nortel train wreck is simply another form of man's fascination with tragedy writ large. We are all rubber-neckers at a particularly ugly traffic accident, one where the cars are totalled and you're sure some one didn't make it. It is not the fact that Nortel plummeted that makes the story so compelling, but the heights from which it tumbled and the depths to which it fell."
Others, such as Jim Corrigan, argue that "This is a company with a very bright future. Despite its recent history of shame, they are still developing, producing and selling leading edge technology." Sabi Ashan says that "this company is neither a paper tiger, nor a mirage. It has real, well respected products and services which customers are willing to buy despite the doom and gloom... little is actually wrong with the company, other than the outright greed of certain executives."
Philip Denno says that he cares because "I think Nortel has a lot of technically capable people... I think it may take years to get over the class action lawsuits and regulatory probes, but in the end I think the company will emerge stronger." Guy Venne says he cares because "I still believe in the people of Nortel. Alright, they may have gone off track and a few bad apples may have done the company wrong but I don't believe such is the case for all the people of Nortel."
Roy Masrani admits that he is "interested in the Nortel story partly as a voyeur... but mostly because of this: when you strip off all the BS around their accounting policies, Nortel still makes products that seem to be popular and reliable." Mike Kroner is also convinced the company still has a chance. He says "The press has glorified or have tried to glorify another horror story... They will come out of this just fine and will one day again be a great Canadian company."
Aldo Paganelli says that he cares "because Nortel is a great story and like the phoenix still has the potential to rise once again from its ashes. In other words, it can still have a happy ending even while we see it now struggle daily in the media spotlight." Darrell Gudmundson argues that "Nortel is the best, perhaps the only, real example we have of a global company conceived and built in Canada which has (any may still) lead the world in the manufacture of mainstream technological products, ones that we use every day."
Then there are those whose impulses are driven by the money they lost as Nortel flamed out. Patrick Lostracco says that "Many Canadians are involved directly or indirectly with this company, whether they bought in the tech boom, or had it divested from Bell... The majority of these clients bought on the way up, held through the crash and now are so far in a loss that they hope and pray it comes back."
Jeff Smith says that "Nortel is to Canadians what Ford is to Americans. Names that basked in past great accomplishments... We remain hopeful for these firms and badly need modern heroes to replace them in our hearts." And Shelley Caron says we follow Nortel like we do hockey: "Nortel represents Canada. I want Nortel to do well as it represents who we are as Canadian people... We want the world to know that we are Number 1 and the best in the field!"
Brian says "The answer is short and simple. No other company that I have ever known about has changed my life so drastically... I took my entire RRSP and borrowed on top of that and placed this money in Nortel stock while it was in the $100 range. My nest egg is now gone and I am still paying on the loan... I would like nothing better than to see this corporation go belly up or at least be delisted."
Another reader who didn't want to give a name had a personal stake in watching Nortel. "I am a 25-year ex-Nortel employee, gone in 2000. I continued to believe John Roth's promises and in Nortel's products, so I hung-on to their stock," this person wrote. "We lost our retirement nest-egg, health care, everything. I will continue to care about Nortel only until their stock returns to a something reasonable so I can sell it."
Elaine Dougan put it very simply: "I care about Nortel because I have money invested in it," she wrote. "I am a small investor and got into the stock market just before everything seemed to collapse. I continue to hope that Nortel... will eventually recover and that I will not lose my hard earned money."
Another reader who didn't want to be named said that he cares about Nortel "because like thousands of other shareholders I have lost an important [part] of my much needed money... while top management attributed themselves fat bonuses and laugh all the way to the bank. In fact CARE is not the proper word. I am simply disgusted."
"Why do most people care?" asks a reader named David. "Because they have a bunch of stock they paid much too much for and didn't bale out in time, and we now hope the company recovers to recoup our loses. That's the only reason anyone would care about such a mess of corporate deceit and incompetence." Another reader says we care "Simply because the memory of phenomenal gains is still fresh in the mind of investors. And so is the memory of phenomenal losses. Love-hate relationships are the most enduring."
Some people, like Jim Rawling, just don't care. Weldon Thoburn says he "couldn't care less about the company, as an investor or a Canadian. It is a company that was born with a silver spoon in its mouth... and then mismanaged its advantages through corruption and incompetence." Jeff Nelson says that "we like to distinguish ourselves from Americans and the accounting scandals... have been an affront to our identity... We follow Nortel with the hope that they can restore their and our image."
Alnoor Ebrahim says that when it comes down to it, we care "because deep down in our hearts we are all sooooo greedy and really really want it to bounce back so we can make some money as we once thought we would." Another reader says that "The reason we are obsessed with Nortel is because we were greedy pigs who did not sell at $120+ the shares we acquired from the Bell spin-off. We hope against hope to break even one day."
Ross Bitove says that for him "it's a pride issue. I just don't want to accept a 95 per cent return on a stock that once seemed so promising." And Paul Merk has a fairly pragmatic view: he says "I care greatly because the mutual fund which holds my RRSP holds a pile of it." Jean Normand says that she cares because "if they can do it, any other company on the exchange can do it, and it means I lose confidence in all of them and in all the information available. Then, why should I invest my money in the stock exchange?"
Professor Tim Cooper, meanwhile, has a somewhat unique perspective: he says "I care about Nortel because... I teach several courses in management accounting, and most textbooks have a brief discussion of ethics in Chapter One, usually referring to American examples of ethical misconduct. It is nice, however, to have home-grown examples, as students find them more memorable."
Reader Leon Bensason says he has a simple reason for caring about Nortel: "Because it was the first stock I ever bought; the first stock I ever sold (at a loss); and the first hard lesson I learned about the difference between playing the market and investing in it."
E-mail Mathew Ingram at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hey Steve, where's the rest of my computer?
There's no question Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a pretty smart guy - and pretty convincing too. How else could he convince everyone they're getting a great deal on the new Mac Mini computer, when it doesn't come with a monitor, a keyboard or a mouse? Sure, it's almost as cheap as a Windows PC - because it doesn't come with a monitor, a keyboard or a mouse. How come we let Steve get away with this comparison? Because he's a cool guy, and his products are cool, that's why. Or at least they're really shiny - and therefore way cooler than Windows PCs, which are boring and white (or sometimes black). Let's put it this way: if you went into a computer store and asked to buy a computer and the guy handed you a box (albeit a nice, shiny box), wouldn't you feel a little ripped off? What if you went into a car dealership and the guy offered you a reasonably-priced car - but the wheels cost extra? I understand that the Mini might be designed to appeal to people with other computers at home, maybe a network. So why doesn't it have a bigger hard drive or a TV tuner card so you can use it as a PVR? Why doesn't it have digital audio out or wireless included? Because Steve was trying to keep it cheap, that's why. And he did - but to sell it as a "cheap Apple computer" that can compete with PCs is taking liberties with the truth.
Update: Reader Paul Thornbery says: "Maybe if you owned a Mac and experienced no crashes or viruses or BSOD's [blue screens of death], you would understand; until then, enjoy your poorly engineered, poorly designed, poorly programmed, cheaply made, unreliable, virus infested, spam ridden, boring white (or black) Wintel machine." Thanks, Paul - I guess we know where you stand. Reader MD, meanwhile, says he figures many people have old monitors at home, and that by leaving them out of the equation Apple is letting people use or buy the one they want instead of getting a new one thrown in. That may be, MD, but it still doesn't explain why we let Apple get away with advertising it as a cheap computer. Dell sells cheap computers and they all come with a monitor, keyboard and mouse. And did I mention the Mini is underpowered and has a tiny hard drive?
Dean Sprung says he thinks the Mini is a good idea because he also has a basement full of keyboards, monitors and mice, while Rob M. and Russ Brown say the Mini is likely to be better and faster than a similarly-priced Windows PC, even if you do get a free monitor, keyboard and mouse with the Windows model. I'm not sure that's true, but of course I can't prove it. Paul Fieguth notes that the cheapest model of Dell in that company's newspaper ads also comes without a monitor, which he says is also misleading -- and I would agree. Although I think if you added a monitor, the Dell would still be cheaper than the naked Mini. Jean-Baptiste Blanchet makes a good point as well: small things get hot. "By cramming a desktop processor, a cheap chipset, and a 7200 RPM hard drive into so small a box," he says, "all you'll get is a pretty expensive mini-oven, more suited to cook eggs in the morning then accessing your mails." Doug Moen says my main complaint seems to be that the hardware is expensive, "but that's been true of every Apple product for the last 20 years, and is hardly a new criticism." True - but does it have to be new?
Reader Keith Whelpdale says that Dean Sprung might be avoiding problems by not using Windows, but "my most recent Mac would hang just as frequently as any PC that I have ever used would crash. And getting technical or any any other customer support from Apple was virtually impossible. I now have a very expensive paper weight with an Apple logo on it while I happily continue to get use out of my much less expensive Windows PC's." Another country heard from.
Go ahead - hack yourself:
Where is the first place a computer hacker goes before trying to gain unauthorized entry to someone's network? They used to go to bulletin boards and chat groups, the back-alleys of the Internet, where passwords are traded like playing cards, but now they often go straight to everyone's favourite search tool: Google. That's because Google's universe of search robots crawls through virtually everything that is publicly available - and in many cases that includes password or sign-in codes, server logons and other handy tools for gaining entry. Now anti-virus company McAfee is selling a tool based on Google-hacking that companies can use to probe their own network for vulnerable spots. But it won't help you find that girl in high school you had a crush on whose name you can't remember.
But those white sheets are always spotless:
What do the Imperial Knights of the Ku Klux Klan do when they aren't dressing up in hooded robes or fomenting inter-racial tension? Apparently they like to pick up litter along with other civic-minded groups such as the Boy Scouts or the Shriners. The KKK applied for one of those Adopt-A-Highway signs in Missouri, a state where the KKK has a somewhat troubled past (to say the least), and the state ruled that it was ineligible because the group promotes violence and discriminates on the basis of race. The KKK sued, arguing that it was an infringement of the group's right to free speech, and won - at which point the state of Missouri appealed the ruling. The Supreme Court apparently agreed with the KKK, since it declined to hear the appeal on Monday.
Update: Helpful reader Paul Sorichetti sent in a hilarious addendum to the KKK highway story, courtesy of the always-correct Snopes.com. Turns out Missouri named the KKK section of highway "Rosa Parks Highway" just to get the Klan's goat - and it also seems the KKK hasn't cleaned much at all, and as a result has been dropped from the program.
Teaching a lesson in a different way:
It's nice to see a teacher going out of their way to send a message to their students about appropriate behaviour - in this case, a professor specializing in corporate ethics. Unfortunately, noted economist Florencio Lpez-de-Silanes did so by showing his students what not to do. Yale University, where Mr. Lpez-de-Silanes was director of the International Institute for Corporate Governance, asked for his resignation after it discovered irregularities in his expense accounts. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the professor double-billed for expenses to the tune of about $150,000. Mr. Lpez-de-Silanes is a former faculty member at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a former advisor to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He had also acted as an economic advisor to various countries, including Russia, Mexico and Egypt. Professor Lpez-de-Silanes issued an apology saying he "made a mistake" and regretted the incident.
Who the heck is Richard Gere?:
Actor and noted Buddhist Richard Gere may be known for his ruggedly handsome good looks (or so I'm told) and his commitment to pacifism, but on Israel's West Bank and in Gaza he is a nobody - and no one seems to care much what he thinks about the election of a Palestine Liberation Organization leader to replace deceased PLO honcho Yasser Arafat. In a televised address, Mr. Gere urged Palestinians to get out and vote, and said he was "speaking for the entire world." Gaza soap-factory worker Manar an-Najar was unimpressed: "I don't even know who the candidates are other than Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), let alone this Gere," he said, adding that "We don't need the Americans' intervention. We know who to elect. Not like them -- they elected a moron." Take that, Richard whoever-you-are.
Update: A reader named Trevor Payne takes me to task for dumping on Mr. Gere. He says the above item is a "cheap shot," and that the actor "is at least making an effort to encourage democratic voting. What exactly are you doing, Mathew Whoever-you-are?" Well, when it comes to Middle East peace initiatives, probably not that much - but at least I'm not claiming to speak for the entire world.
Meanwhile, a reader known only as Barbara says (sarcastically, I assume) that Mr. Gere "should be doing what you would do if in his position, play some golf and smooze with the Rich and Famous at the "Mercedes Open" on Mauii." She says at least then he "wouldn't have some cynical journalist bad mouthing your effort to make a small difference." To be fair, Barbara, I declined to play in the Mercedes Open -- it was on the same weekend as my lunch with the Pope, and the big guy couldn't reschedule.And another reader, Cindy Taylor, says Mr. Gere's pronouncement shows a lot of nerve for an "overpaid, underworked American" and that if Hugh Grant said something similar about Canadians getting out to vote, she would tell him to do something unmentionable with his cup of tea. Thanks, Cindy.
What do you believe?: A group of thinkers called the Edge Foundation came up with a provocative question for 120 scientists and other great minds: "What do you believe even though you can't prove it?" There were some typical answers - God showed up, of course - and some not so typical ones. Legendary astrophysicist Freeman Dyson came up with a mathematical principle that you'd need a math degree just to understand, let alone appreciate. Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey said he believes that human consciousness is just a trick, designed by nature to help us reproduce more effectively. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux said he believes that animals have feelings, and psychologist David Buss said he - despite all his research into sexual deviancy and criminal activity - believes in true love. (thanks, Chethan)
Way to go, Dad: David Banach of Parsippany, New Jersey would probably score pretty high in the "Worst Dad of the Year" rankings, even though it's still only January. Mr. Banach, it turns out, likes to flash his green laser-pointer device at incoming aircraft from time to time, just for laughs. The only problem with doing that, of course, is that it's a federal offence, since the light can momentarily blind pilots. After a jet pilot complained of a green light, federal agents in a helicopter flew over nearby neighbourhoods in an attempt to spot the culprit, and managed to track the source of the laser light to Mr. Banach's house. So what did he do? He told the agents that his daughter was the one who flashed the light. Later, under questioning with a lie detector, he admitted that he was the one with the laser pointer. Nice work, Dave.
Update: Turns out the "laser pointer" Mr. Banach allegedly used wasn't just your garden variety laser light - it was a super-powered flashlight-sized laser that can shoot a beam up to several miles, used by astronomy afficionados to point out stars.
Some tandoori for that Alzheimer's?: Food-based health remedies - chicken soup, etc. - are as old as the hills, but medical researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles have come up with a new one that not many people probably know about: their studies show that curcumin, which gives yellow curry powder its distinctive colour, can slow the effects of Alzheimer's disease. The research appears to indicate that the yellow pigment slows or stops the build up of beta amyloids in the brains of Alzheimer's patients and also breaks up existing deposits that can cause Alzheimer sufferers to behave erratically.
Update: The original tag for this item used the term "vindaloo", but helpful reader Raoul Heredia let me know that vindaloo doesn't contain curcumin. That's because (according to Raoul), vindaloo comes from the former Portugese colony of Goa, and isn't really curry at all. Its name, he says, is a corruption of the term "vinho" (meaning wine) and "alho" (meaning garlic). Thanks, Raoul. I feel smarter already.
Don't answer - it's a virus: If you're still trying to figure out how to keep viruses from paralyzing your desktop computer every time you get an e-mail, you're probably not going to like the latest development in virus-land: a Brazilian programmer has released the source code for a cellphone-based virus called Cabir, code which could be used by malicious hackers to target cellphones. Although previous versions of the virus were produced in a research lab and have yet to be found "in the wild" (much like another cellphone virus code-named Skulls) researchers said the code could easily be used to create variants of the Cabir virus. Virus experts say the threat is still low because users would have to install the virus in order for it to work - but then that's more or less the case for e-mail viruses too, and we all know there are plenty of those to go around.
And a Merry Christmas to you too: You would think that this time of year would be a real boon to a company like American Greetings, what with all the Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Festivus cards flying around. Unfortunately for investors in the company, you would be wrong. American Greetings came out Thursday and said that it was slashing its full-year profit estimate to about $1.05 per share from a previous target of $1.65 per share. For the mathematically-challenged, that's a reduction of more than 35 per cent. American Greetings said that cost-cutting was the culprit, since it is taking a number of one-time writeoffs as a result of closing some plants. The company reported a profit of 78 cents a share in the latest quarter, up handsomely from 60 cents in the same period last year, but much of the increase came at its reading-glasses division, which it has sold. On continuing operations the company's profit fell 10 per cent and sales dropped by about 3 per cent. Happy holidays indeed.
You want a check for what?: Although it has owned Slate.com for eight years now, the fact that software behemoth Microsoft owned a tiny on-line magazine always seemed a little odd - even to some of the magazine's employees, apparently. Now that Slate has been bought by the company that owns the Washington Post, publisher Jacob Weisberg confessed that it was more than a little disconcerting to be owned by such a gigantic company. "They're really big and we're really small," he said. "The joke was always that we're almost a rounding error, but a rounding error probably exaggerated our status." Mr. Weisberg said that this size difference was more than just a joke - it actually influenced how Slate functioned. For example, the publisher said that it was difficult to pay freelance writers properly because "a company like Microsoft isn't geared to write a check for $400." Not surprising, since the software maker probably spends 10 times that much every day just buying donuts for the programmers.
Jail is Martha's best friend: Whatever you might think of jailed home-decorating diva Martha Stewart - persecuted public personality or rightfully incarcerated liar - one thing is clear: going to jail is the best thing that ever happened to her. The share price of her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, has climbed by more than 40 per cent in the past six weeks and is now at a four-year high. The domestic diva has reportedly signed an $8-million deal for a new reality TV show, and will even be appearing on television over Christmas thanks to the magic of taped episodes. And she'll have a nice pile of dough when she emerges from prison - where she has apparently lost weight, gotten in shape and made a bunch of friends - because she just sold 300,000 shares at about $28 (U.S.) per share, pocketing more than $8-million. People must be buying the stock out of sympathy, however (or short-covering, more likely) because the company isn't doing all that well: sales fell 24 per cent in the latest quarter, for the eighth quarter in a row, and its losses widened.
Better than Steve Jobs: Among the usual names in a list of 2004 success stories at CBS Marketwatch - Steve Jobs, Google, takeover king Ed Lampert, and so on - it's nice to see a familiar name: Canada. Yes, our entire country showed up in the top 10 success stories of the year at the financial website (we're number 7 - ahead of Steve Jobs but behind Martha Stewart). According to Marketwatch, Canada "could give the United States a run for its money as the model capitalist society." The piece goes on to praise our stock market and currency, and says Prime Minister Paul Martin "has emerged as a political centrist whom U.S. politicians might consider emulating." Also coming in for some positive comments is the Canadian health-care system, "especially prescription-drug prices, which dominated the U.S. presidential-election debate almost as much as Iraq and job creation." We also get thanks for helping out with flu vaccines when the U.S. came up short. In the end, the piece says that "If Canada stays its course, it may prove to a right-leaning America that "liberal" isn't a four-letter word." Go Canada.
Check - or maybe checkmate: Offering official refuge to a known criminal, particularly one who is well known for his anti-U.S. and anti-Semitic views, seems like not such a great idea - especially for a tiny little country like Iceland. But what if that fugitive crank is chess genius Bobby Fischer? Iceland has extended its hand to the reclusive chess master, offering him official residency, even though he is currently in detention in Japan for travelling on an invalid passport. Mr. Fischer put Iceland on the map in 1972 with his historic chess match against the legendary Boris Spassky. After winning, Mr. Fischer didn't play again for 20 years, when he won a match in the former Yugoslavia - a bout which ran afoul of U.S. laws against dealing with the former corrupt regime. Iceland says it just wants to recognize a former hero, but others wonder about the wisdom of angering the U.S., not to mention giving shelter to someone with Mr. Fischer's extreme views (he has written favourably about the terrorist attacks of September 11).
Update: Reader Lyle Craver, the national secretary of the Chess Federation of Canada, says "Bobby Fischer has been a conundrum for the chess playing world pretty much since he first emerged on the scene in the late 1950s" but adds that "he's our guy and we're stuck with him for better or for worse." Other readers said they didn't think Mr. Fischer should be stigmatized for playing chess in Yugoslavia, or for holding eccentric views. Meanwhile, Richard J. Vattuone - who identified himself as Mr. Fischer's attorney - called me some unprintable names and said the chess master is guilty of nothing.
Will Emperor Norton get a bridge?: You probably didn't learn about him in history class, but Emperor Norton I may be about to have a bridge in San Francisco named after him, if a motion by city council is approved. The idea got a push from a local comic strip and a city councillor took up the torch. And who was Emperor Norton I? He was a businessman who came to San Francisco in 1849 and later lost his fortune - and his mental stability, according to local historians. He declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, walked the streets with a plume in his hat and a sword in his hand, and for the next two decades issued various proclamations and even issued his own currency. In 1872, he ordered that "a bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island and thence to Telegraph Hill." Now that there is such a bridge (the Bay Bridge), some supporters figure Emperor Norton should get his due.
Taking nostalgia a little too far: I know 1980s nostalgia is all the rage now, what with Duran Duran back on the charts and even Donald Trump making a comeback, but does that mean we have to revive our misguided 1980s industrial policy as well? Apparently. Industry Minister David Emerson seems to think that it's a good idea to hand out a billion or two to the aerospace industry (for that, read "Bombardier") in hopes that this will encourage all kinds of job creation in various regions of the country. In fact, Ottawa said it would give Bombardier a $300-million line of credit before the company even asked for any money. Now that's a Christmas bonus. Here's a tip for Mr. Emerson, who I'm sure means well: Take a look at how that whole Liberal policy worked in the late 1970s and '80s. In a nutshell, it didn't - unless turning Bombardier into a perennial cap-in-hand, government-cash addict was what the government had in mind. Remember, Dave: Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
Update: A reader named Dino Morson writes to say that he did his undergraduate thesis on the aerospace industry in 1982 and came to the conclusion that had the government not stepped in, de Havilland and Canadair would have been closed and "effectively removed Canada's aerospace industry from the face of the earth." Thanks, Dino. The only question, of course, is whether Canada needs an aerospace industry so badly that one has to be subsidized.
Reader Willy Spat asks how the subsidies for Bombardier are any different from the tax breaks and other subsidies that the film industry or the auto industry get, and he quotes French politician Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) as saying: "The State is the great fictitious entity by which everyone expects to live at the expense of everyone else." A fair point, Willy. But as my mother used to say: "Two wrongs don't make a right." Reader Kevin Maloney says Bombardier shouldn't get any government money until they get rid of their multiple-voting share structure. "If the Beaudoin family want to control the company they should purchase the majority of shares just like anyone else," he says. Good idea, Kevin.
You lose some, and you...: When news came down Tuesday afternoon of a ruling in a U.S. company's patent infringement case against Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion, the handheld company's stock jumped by more than 10 per cent, as investors cheered what they saw as a partial victory for RIM. After all, the court sent the case back to a lower court to reconsider, right? RIM fans: Party on! Just one problem, though -- the court of appeal also upheld virtually all of the U.S. company's patent infringement claims against the Canadian company. RIM fans: Bummer! However, the court also vacated the original judgement that awarded the U.S. company (NTP) $53-million in damages. RIM fans: Yeah, baby! Then, after trading was halted for a company statement, the stock proceeded to sink by about 5 per cent on heavy volume. RIM fans: I'm confused!
Another month, another $1-billion: Either video games appeal to a lot more than just the acne-ridden, basement-dwelling, anti-social teens who are usually identified (in the media at least) as game aficionados, or there are a heck of a lot more young sociopaths with money than most people think. Between you and me, I'll take what's behind door number one - although there still aren't enough out there for some people. According to a report from industry consulting firm NPD, close to $900-million (U.S.) worth of video games were sold in November. However, two titles - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas from Rockstar Games and Halo 2 from Microsoft - accounted for about 30 per cent of that amount, or almost $300-million. Wihout those two, sales would have been just $630-million, down by about 20 per cent over last year.
Update: Thoughtful reader Martin McEwen says it's a little unfair to remove the top two games and then compare sales to last year. "If you deduct the two top-selling games for the same period last year, how much of a drop would we see in 2005?" he asks. "That's like an economist quoting US GDP numbers but saying that IF California had been sunk by an earthquake in 2004, US GDP would have been off by 13%." A fair point. Thanks, Martin.
Hairspray makes a great accelerant: The hairdressing industry doesn't get much respect most of the time, perhaps in part because people assume it is filled with nothing but limp-wristed Judy Garland fans (despite Warren Beatty's evidence to the contrary in Shampoo). Maybe Gabriel Zakhem wanted to give the industry a bit of a macho makeover - or maybe he had just watched a few too many episodes of The Sopranos. According to a court case in Australia, Mr. Zakhem decided that he wanted to increase his market share in the hairdressing supplies business, so he hired a couple of thugs to fire-bomb several of his competitors - and even fire-bombed his own warehouse to deflect suspicion. He also allegedly fire-bombed a business he had invested in to try and get an insurance payout. At least we know he probably looked great in his police mug shot.
Thanks for the tip, Effer: In case you're getting all excited about the growing frenzy for Apple's iPod and similar music players, Edgar Bronfman Jr. says he thinks MP3 players will eventually be overtaken by... wait for it... cellphones. Mr. Bronfman - known as "Effer" to his family, founders of the former Seagram liquor empire - is the chairman and CEO of Warner Music, which is busy trying to license its library of songs for use as ringtones on cellphones and for downloading through on-line services such as Apple's iTunes. He says phones with lots of memory will take over the market eventually. Of course, a skeptical observer might take Mr. Bronfman's prediction with a few grains of salt, given that he also thought it was a good idea to merge his family's empire with French conglomerate Vivendi, a venture that reduced the Bronfman fortune by billions of dollars. In any case, Edgar, keep coming with the ideas - one of them is bound to work out eventually.
Update: Reader Sybran Hettingga from the Netherlands says Edgar Jr.'s idea is "not that far-fetched at all. All over Europe, MP3-playing phones already start to rule the roost. The Nokia 6230 alone outsells the iPod at least 20 to 1, while being similarly priced. As North America tends to lag Europe and Japan 2-4 years in mobile trends, I would definitely think twice about holding on to those Apple shares." Thanks, Sybran.
Forget patriotism -- shop at the .com: Eagle-eyed on-line shoppers who have been looking for DVDs or books for Christmas may have noticed something peculiar: In some cases, the same item seems to cost less at Amazon.com than it does at the Canadian version of the website, Amazon.ca. Of course it does, you say -- but that difference disappears when you convert the U.S. price into Canadian dollars, right? Not always. For example, if you buy the Shrek 2 DVD and the third Harry Potter movie together at Amazon.com, it will cost you $43.93 U.S., or $52.76 in Canadian dollars, and that includes shipping costs. The same bundle at Amazon.ca - with free shipping - costs $68.98. The major difference? Tax. The Amazon.com price doesn't include PST or GST. But isn't it your duty as a patriotic Canadian to pay those taxes? Sure it is - and you go right ahead. I'll be shopping at Amazon.com.
Update: A number of readers have mentioned that if you buy at Amazon.com you will have to pay GST, PST and customs duties or handling charges, which will be billed to you by Canada Post. With many on-line retailers that is the case, because they calculate the value of the product and add the charges for tax and duties to the bill. Amazon.com doesn't appear to do this - at least not for DVDs and books. Could it just not be adjusting for the recent strength of the loonie?
To those readers who have taken me to task for encouraging tax evasion, I would just like to point out that I pay plenty of taxes already, and I hardly think that my not paying GST on a few DVDs is going to result in the collapse of Canadian civilization as we know it. In other related news, helpful reader Richard O'Mara notes that on-line electronics retailer TigerDirect.ca ships from the U.S. with no duties or customs-handling charges, although it does add PST and GST.
Musicians download -- and upload: The conventional picture of music downloading - at least the one being pushed by the record industry - is of music "pirates" stealing money from starving musicians. According to a recent survey of artists and musicians by the Pew Research Center's Internet arm, however, the reality is a little more complicated. The center surveyed more than 800 artists by phone and more than 2,000 musicians by on-line survey and found that not only did 35 per cent believe that file-sharing should be legal, but more than half believed that the current copyright system benefits record companies more than artists, two-thirds said they didn't seen file-sharing as a threat to their livelihood, and more than 80 per cent had uploaded their own music to the Internet. About 22 per cent said they regularly downloaded music, about the same proportion as the general population.
Here's some money, now get lost:American Airlines, which has lost more than $6-billion (U.S.) in the past three years, figures it needs to lose some more before it can start making some (theoretically), so it's offering employees incentives to take a hike. Those with at least five years seniority will be able to leave and get one of three deals: 1) keep free travel benefits for five or 10 years but get no severance; 2) get some severance and up to two years of extra travel benefits; or 3) take both severance and free travel and retire after the benefits end. Kind of makes you want to work there so you could quit, doesn't it? Here's the best part though - pilots aren't eligible for the offer because they get that kind of deal already. In fact, pilots who expect to be laid off can leave and get another job without losing their seniority at American, just in case they get rehired.
Did the Terminator pull the trigger?: Sean Harrigan, the activist president of the California Public Employees Retirement System - the largest pension fund in the U.S. with more than $178-billion in assets - was fired Wednesday, as he himself had predicted he would be. Appointed by former Democratic governor Gray Davis, the Calpers boss had been under fire from the board that oversees the fund, which is now dominated by Republicans. And who named the new board member that tipped the scales? Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. That has led to some speculation that the Terminator might have had a hand in terminating Mr. Harrigan's presidency. Why? Because he and Calpers led the charge against some notable corporate ne'er-do-wells, including former Disney chairman Michael Eisner - a prominent California businessmen - and former New York Stock Exchange chairman Dick Grasso. Coincidence? Perhaps.
Can Bill Miller squeak through again?: Everywhere across North America, little children are waiting with bated breath to see if the jolly fat man will do it again - come with presents on Christmas morning, that is. And all across Wall Street, fund managers are waiting to see whether Bill Miller will do it again - beat the Standard & Poor's 500 index, that is, for the 14th year in a row. He may not be as jolly (although he's reportedly quite a nice guy) and he's more stocky than fat, but his record is almost as good as the man in red. The Legg Mason Value Fund manager has beaten the S&P for a record 13 years straight (the previous record was held by Peter Lynch, manager of Fidelity's Magellan Fund). But Bill isn't so sure he can pull it off again this year. And that's despite the performance of Google, which he bought a ton of in the initial public offering. You can do it, Bill. We believe in you.
A battle that's not so sweet: It's not easy being a fake sugar maker these days. The company that makes the artificial sweetener Equal (Merisant Co.) has accused the makers of competing sweetener Splenda (Johnson & Johnson) of false advertising, for saying that their product "is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." Equal points out that Splenda's sweetness comes from a synthetic chemical, and therefore the company is lying. Some of this bitterness probably stems from the fact that Equal has fallen behind in the fake sugar race, and Splenda has taken first place even though it was only released four years ago. Splenda says the sweet part of its product starts out as cane sugar and then is chemically modified to remove calories. Equal wants the company to change its ads to say that Splenda is made from "dextrose, maltodextrin and 4-chloro-4-deoxy-alpha, D-Galactopyranosyl-1,6-dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-beta, D-fructofuranoside." Sure, like that's going to happen.
Help for drunken diallers: A helpful blog reader named Steve pointed out that Virgin Mobile, the cellphone company run by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, is offering a unique service in Australia this holiday season. Anyone who has been guilty of CWI or "calling while intoxicated" - i.e., having a few too many refreshments and then calling an ex-girlfriend, former boss, etc. and telling them what they really think of them - can give Virgin a phone number (or numbers). The mobile phone company will then block them from calling those numbers for a certain time period... in other words, until they sober up. Way to go, Sir Richard.
Michael O'Leary gives the salute: The founder and CEO of plucky Irish discount airline Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, says his company is putting $240-million (U.S.) dollars into an airport in Shannon, and says that this investment allows Ryanair to "stick two fingers up to the nay-sayers and doom-mongers who said that Shannon would not work." Anyone not familiar with slang in the United Kingdom might wonder what that phrase "two fingers up" refers to - it certainly doesn't sound complimentary. And it isn't. Like a reverse peace sign, holding up your hand with just the first two fingers extended and the palm facing you is a vulgar gesture in most of the UK, in the same way holding up the middle finger is in North America. Why? Who knows. There are elaborate theories about soldiers in the Middle Ages and the two fingers used to draw a bow, but most anthropologists say that is a load of, well... bollocks.
Update: Loyal reader Zac Wrixon says this gesture is known colloquially as "the forks," but he's not sure why. Thanks, Zac.
Barnum gets the last laugh: It must be tough wandering around Hollywood having everyone ridicule you mercilessly for your boring name, next to all the movie-star offspring with their bizarre monikers (River, Leaf, Rumur, Tallulah, etc.). Rather than have her child go through that kind of hell, Julia Roberts decided to name one of her twins Phinnaeus. This has the added benefit of not just being unusual - famous sideshow barker Phineas T. Barnum is one of the few well-known figures with this name - but also uses an archaic spelling that was probably commonplace in ancient Rome but looks even more out of place now. For the record, when you search on Google, one of the first hits for that spelling is Phinnaeus P. Gage, who entered medical history by having his head pierced by a four-foot steel rod in 1848 (he was fine -- although friends said his personality changed dramatically).
E-mail Mathew Ingram at email@example.com
Posted Monday, November 29 at 512:48 p.m.
Sometimes it pays to be shameless: Marketing, particularly the guerilla kind, isn't the kind of endeavour where you get ahead by being sensitive or shy, and no one is better proof of that than the marketing geniuses down at GoldenPalace.com, the Canadian-run, Antigua-based on-line casino. At this point, whenever something stupid occurs - such as a clown in a tutu jumping into the pool at the Olympics or someone paying $28,000 (U.S.) for a cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary on it - you can bet that GoldenPalace.com is involved. Their logo has shown up on streakers at the U.S. Open, the British Open and the Royal Ascot, been tattoed on professional boxers, and Golden Palace paid $36,000 for the ball that David Beckham kicked over the goal in the World Cup. Is it good business? They're not saying. But just about everyone has seen or heard the name by now, and that's gotta be worth something.
E-mail Mathew Ingram at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted Thursday, November 25 at 5:00 p.m.
A monument to the animals: Just in case you thought there weren't enough war monuments already in Britain, a new one was unveiled Wednesday by Princess Anne - paying tribute to the animals that died in the two world wars. The memorial is dedicated to the dogs, horses, carrier pigeons and other assorted critters that helped the war effort in their small (or not so small) way. And it wasn't just the big and cuddly animals that got the nod from the Princess Royal either: the monument is also a salute to worms - specifically, the glow-worms (actually a species of beetle) that First World War soldiers used so they could read battle maps and letters in their trenches in the dark. Way to go, worms.
A stock from outer space: Sirius Satellite Radio has gotten a lot of attention lately, thanks in part to signing a contract with "shock jock" radio host Howard Stern - for the bargain price of $500-million U.S. over five years - and to bringing in radio veteran Mel Karmazin as CEO. That has paid off in terms of stock-market response, to say the least. Sirius jumped by more than 12 per cent Tuesday on heavy volume; in fact, Sirius traded more than 400 million shares, or more than the next 15 largest volume traders on the Nasdaq market (including Intel, Microsoft and Cisco) put together. And all that because Sirius says it may close the year with a million subscribers. Meanwhile, competitor XM Satellite Radio will end the year with three times as many. And neither company is an investor's dream: Sirius is trading at a mind-boggling 160 times revenue, and has a market cap of $8-billion with sales of just $46-million. In the past 12 months it has lost almost $600-million. Sign me up!
Update: Sirius shares slid on Wednesday by 10 per cent; apparently, some investors sobered up overnight. Still heavy volume too -- which might be explained in part by the more than 1.2 billion shares the company has outstanding, a result of an earlier restructuring that saw creditors receive hundreds of millions of shares in return for their debts.
Hasta la vista, baby: It's hard to imagine that a technology can go from groundbreaking and revolutionary to dead as a doornail so quickly, but the famous British electronics chain Dixon's has sounded the death knell for the VCR by removing them from its shelves. The retail outlet says the common VCR is simply too cheap and useless to be of interest to anyone in an age of DVDs and TiVos. The VCR - once the subject of a gigantic industry-changing fight between Sony's Betamax format and the winning VHS standard - has been around for more than 25 years, but didn't start making its way into the average household until the mid-1980s. Now no one wants them. Burglars are apparently even declining to steal them because they simply aren't worth anything any more.
Update: Reader Ann from Portugal writes: "To think those of us nearing retirement are just learning to use ours and now they are obsolete!"
How about a 32,000-per-cent return?: Sure, it would be nice to be one of those Google investors who picked up stock in the company's initial public offering, considering the shares have gone from $85 (U.S.) to about $170. That's a nice 100-per-cent return, which is better than most people do with an investment. But think for a moment - if you like to torture yourself, that is - about a venture capital fund like Kleiner Perkins, the Silicon Valley firm that has been behind many of the most successful Internet plays, including Yahoo and Netscape. Kleiner's partners invested in Google when the stock was worth about 49 cents a share, buying several million shares for $12.5-million, and they just said they plan to sell part of that stake. Its value now? About $4-billion or so. That's a return of about 32,000 per cent.
Doughnuts but no dough: Not that long ago, everyone wanted a piece of American doughnut (or donut) maker Krispy Kreme -- either they wanted a piece of the company's trademark gooey sugar pills, or they were desperate for some of the chain's stock. As recently as March, the shares were still on fire, trading at more than $40 (U.S.) each. Then things started to get stale -- Krispy Kreme's same-store sales began to slide, costs began to rise as it continued to expand, and investors started to get that sinking feeling in their stomachs that comes from bingeing on something sweet. Now, Krispy Kreme has said its profit for the latest quarter fell by 80 per cent, and the stock has been taken out into the alley, falling below $10. In the past six months or so, more than $1.8-billion in market value has been erased. But someone has been making money at least: the percentage of Krispy Kreme's shares that are sold "short" (that is, sold in the hopes they will go down) is about 45 per cent of the total float. Now that's tasty.
Pass the hankie for Bill Gates: It seems sort of fitting in a way -- according to Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, the software behemoth's co-founder and chairman Bill Gates is possibly the most "spammed" person in the world. In other words, he gets more junk mail than just about anyone - about 4 million per day or so. Are you feeling sorry for him yet? Of course, with Bill's net worth of about $30-billion (U.S.) he can afford to hire an army of assistants to go through all those e-mails for him. Maybe that's why Microsoft is working with other software companies on anti-spam technology. Now if he would only do something about all those viruses...
Update: Another Bill, reader Bill Bursztyn, says he'd be willing to pay 1 cent per e-mail in the hopes that such a charge would end the incentive behind spam. But would it, Bill? Spammers can make millions from gullible readers -- see the item below about the "Nigerian" e-mail spammer that made almost a million dollars a year. Reader Kevin Amery says a recent CNN article on a convicted spammer said he made up to $750,000 a month, but only by sending as many as 10 million messages a day. Add a one-cent charge and that's $3-million a month - more than enough to make the business unappealing.
Not ready for the revolution: Does anyone remember back in 2001 when there was a huge buzz about a revolutionary new gizmo - code-named Ginger - that was about to hit the market? Steve Jobs said the device from inventor Dean Kamen would change the nature of human society forever. When it came out, the Segway Human Transporter - a two-wheeled, self-balancing scooter - was a bit of an anti-climax, but still kind of cool. But would anyone use them, let alone buy and use enough of them to revolutionize society? Apparently not. The company had to recall some about a year ago due to a defect, at which point it emerged that only about 6,000 had been sold. Now the president of the company has resigned with no replacement named. Got any other revolutions up your sleeve, Dean?
Bad, but not bad enough for severance: Sure, being a top Hollywood studio boss - like Michael Ovitz used to be at Disney - can be a great thing, what with all the adulation and millions of dollars in salary. But then you have your every weakness dragged through court after you get dismissed by the board, as Ovitz was. On the bright side, of course, you get $140-million payment for being let go, which has to ease the pain somewhat. Shareholders were less than impressed with the bonanza, however, and they sued Mr. Ovitz, Disney chairman Michael Eisner and the board for that $140-million, saying Mr. Ovitz should have been fired without severance. Mr. Eisner is effectively trying to argue that Mr. Ovitz wasn't fired for any specific shortcoming or malfeasance, but simply because he was an insufferable, arrogant egomaniac. Nice work if you can get it.
Update: Speaking of egomaniacs, reader Wayne Hendry writes to ask about the pot calling the kettle black. After all, he says, "Is Mr. Eisner not a insufferable, arrogant egomaniac who has received millions in options and salary for doing a bad job?" Touché, Wayne.
Good thing Neil has the music: After losing a court case that found the company had used diagrams stolen from a competitor, 104-year-old toy (sorry..., "model") train maker Lionel LLC has filed for bankruptcy - for the second time. One of those who might show up in court is legendary Canadian-born folk/rock singer Neil Young, who owns 20 per cent of the company - a stake he bought in 1991, when Lionel went bankrupt for the first time. According to his biography, Mr. Young has always been fascinated with model trains, and spends a lot of time tinkering with a massive set he had constructed in a 2,800-foot barn on his California ranch. He has even gone on tour with a gigantic model train set as part of his backdrop. The "godfather of grunge" has also come up with dozens of modifications for Lionel's trains over the years - many of which were originally designed to let Mr. Young's severely handicapped son Ben (who has cerebral palsy) interact with the trains.
But will it be worth it?: Not that long ago, computer giant Sun Microsystems ruled over large parts of the corporate networking business - and most of the Internet - with an iron fist. Its proprietary servers were used by just about everyone, along with its proprietary software, Solaris (a version of Unix). As computers have become cheaper and faster, however, and a free version of Unix called Linux has become more and more popular, companies have been moving to non-proprietary solutions. What does that mean for Sun? Let's put it this way: It ain't good. The company's sales and profit margins have been falling (along with the stock price) and now Sun has taken a step most people would never have imagined: It is giving away the latest version of its Solaris operating system, and hoping to make money on service and support. Coincidentally enough, that's exactly the model companies such as Red Hat - and IBM, for that matter - have been using to eat Sun's lunch for the past few years. Could the Sun finally be setting?
Come on Nortel - you can do it: Maybe we just haven't been encouraging enough when it comes to Nortel - maybe that's it. Maybe if we were all just a little more eager for the company's restated results, if we made it clear how much we care, then maybe Nortel would come out with what it has promised and then denied investors at least three times now: an accounting of what it sold and how much it made over the past few years. It's not that we think it's easy - oh no. Far from it. We know it's hard to keep track of your profits and losses when you're a multibillion-dollar company, and who among us hasn't gotten them confused from time to time? So maybe if we were just a little bit nicer, Nortel could find it in its heart to come up with the numbers, maybe even before December 15th when it risks being delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. Come on, say it with me, everybody: You can do it, Nortel.
Update: A number of readers have written in with inspirational messages for Nortel - filled with words of praise and in many cases a lot of exclamation marks - which suggests that these readers may have missed the sarcasm in my original posting. To be clear, I don't think Nortel is suffering from any lack of self-esteem. They just can't seem to get their numbers together, and in fact the numbers they do have seem to be getting worse by the day. That is not something morale-boosting can cure. Jim Wevers writes to say Nortel should change its name to "Never-tel."
If only Private Ryan didn't swear: If you live in certain parts of the U.S. and were hoping to catch the Veteran's Day special broadcast of the movie Saving Private Ryan on the ABC network, you might be out of luck. Some affiliates are refusing to broadcast the movie because it contains obscenities, and they are afraid that the Federal Communications Commission will fine them the way it fined the network after Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." Some affiliates might prefer to bleep the offending words, but director Steven Spielberg's deal with ABC specifies that the movie must run uncut and unedited.
Polar Express to nightmare-land?: Depending on whom you choose to believe, Polar Express - the new animated movie from Robert Zemeckis, which uses "motion caputure" technology to create realistic-looking characters - is either a tour-de-force that reawakens the spirit of Christmas or a creepy, nightmare-inducing zombie-fest. The Globe's Rick Groen loved it, calling it The train that saved Xmas. Roger Ebert also liked it, as did other reviewers at major newspapers. Newsday, however, said it "derails in zombie land," and that the attempt to create realistic-looking characters was "creepy." CNN also calls it "a creepy ride," and the Detroit News says "Unnerving effects derail Polar Express." It seems the Polar Express is polar-izing indeed (sorry).
Stop, in the name of chocolate: You may not know much about Ivory Coast - or Cote d'Ivoire, as it used to be known when it was a French protectorate - but if you like chocolate then you might be interested in knowing that this tiny West African nation supplies more than 40 per cent of the world's cocoa beans. You might also want to know that this supply has come to a crashing halt as a result of an outbreak of violence in the country, which is controlled by President Laurent Gbagbo. Ivory Coast forces have been attacking - and been attacked by - French forces, and both the country's main ports are closed. This is a crucial time for the chocolate industry because Ivory Coast produces about 80 per cent of its cocoa between October and January.
Welcome to Stelco, comrades: Whatever else you might think about the takeover offer that Russian steel giant Severstal has made for insolvent Canadian steel-maker Stelco, you have to admit it could be interesting the first time billionaire Severstal CEO Alexei Mordashov gets together with the boss of Stelco's union. Rolf Gerstenberger, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 1005, is an avowed Marxist-Leninist who has run for more than one local election under the banner of the Canadian communist party, while Mr. Mordashov is one of the new breed of Russian "oligarchs" who became filthy rich by acquiring former Soviet assets (such as Severstal's steel mills) at rock-bottom prices after the Soviet Union fell. The two men should have plenty to talk about.
I'm not Nigerian, but: Everyone moans about e-mail spam - the hundreds or even thousands of fake pleas for money that clog up one's in-box - but no one will admit that all that spam exists for a simple reason: because people fall for it. Not only do thousands of people send money away for "herbal Viagra" and other scams, but plenty of people sent cash to one Nick Marinellis -- more than $3.8-million (U.S.) over five years, in fact, in response to letters promising them millions of dollars from Nigerian bank accounts in return for an "administration fee." The investigation leading to his arrest turned up a network of scammers with an office complex in Nottingham, a million-dollar house in Sydney, seven other properties in the New South Wales area, five cars and several bank accounts.The New Zealand-based spam scammer was sentenced to five years and three months in prison for 10 counts of fraud.
Fun with Nortel's new slogan: You would think everybody would be up to their ears in work over at Nortel Networks, the disgraced networking-equipment giant - what with trying to get a verifiable set of financial results together for regulators, a challenge Nortel has failed to meet several times now. And that's not to mention the raft of class-action lawsuits from investors who saw their stake in the company evaporate, only to find out that Nortel had claimed a profit where one never existed, and that certain former executives had received bonuses based on those alleged profits. But apparently Nortel had plenty of time to come up with a new TV marketing campaign featuring the slogan: "This is the Way. This is Nortel." Catchy, isn't it? Just for fun, see if you can come up with your own phrases to complete the sentence "This is the Way..." How about: "This is the Way... we massage the numbers." Or maybe: "This is the Way... we move the goalposts." Hours of fun for the whole family.
U.S. rules in bubbles too: The U.S. continues to assert its international dominance - in chewing gum. Kelsey Lea of tiny Conway, Arkansas kicked some British bubble-blowing butt by taking the world title for a 16-inch bubble. The 12-year-old won the U.S. national title in New York in July, in a contest broadcast live on the Today show. Her British conquest - using her trademark three pieces of Double Bubble - was broadcast on the BBC. And 16 inches isn't even the largest bubble Kelsey has blown: she qualified for the U.S. championships with a 20-incher. Must not be a lot to do in Conway, Ark.
He's only mostly dead: When is someone really dead? Most of the time that's a philosophical question at best, but when it comes to Yasser Arafat's condition it is a pressing political issue. For most of Thursday and Friday, the world's news media tried to sort out whether the (former?) Palestinian leader was actually deceased. The President of Luxembourg, of all people - who must be a little sensitive, considering his country is about the size of Niagara Falls - declared Mr. Arafat dead, only to be contradicted by French medical officials, who said he was still alive. Then they said his condition had become "more complex." Some reported that he was in a coma, others that he was brain dead. Israel said he was medically dead, the PLO said not. Does any of this remind you of Monty Python's "parrot" sketch? Let's put it this way: he's not well.
Update: Helpful reader Alin Vargatu points out that Luxembourg has a prime minister, not a president (the country's supreme leader is a duke, Grand Duke Henri). And Kevin Carriere, who works with the critically ill, says it's possible that Mr. Arafat has been given a lot of painkillers to help his body fight off whatever is making him sick, and that he is in what amounts to a medically-induced coma.
Brent Walsh notes that Muslim law requires believers such as Mr. Arafat to be buried within two days of their death, and since there is a storm of controversy over where Mr. Arafat should be buried (Palestinians want him to be interred at the holy al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, which the Israelis revere as the Temple Mount) there might be a tendency to "postpone" his death, as it were. Thanks go out to Alin, Kevin and Brent.
And to those who have written to say that I am being insensitive, I would point out that poking fun at the uncertainty over Mr. Arafat's death is not the same as taking pleasure in his death.
Final Update: News flash: Mr. Arafat is now actually dead - no more debate.
Get me some oil-free CDs: By now, everyone is probably pretty familiar with the impact of high crude oil prices on gasoline costs, home heating costs, even the price of bread and other goods that have to be trucked long distances using expensive diesel fuel. But compact discs? Yes indeedy. Cinram, the Toronto-based company that is the world's largest manufacturer of CDs and DVDs, said on Wednesday that its profit will likely be crimped next year by the rise in the price of oil. Why? Because CDs and DVDs are made from polycarbonate and polystyrene, both of which are petroleum byproducts. Investors didn't take too kindly to the news that profits were going to be smaller than expected - the stock sank by more than 20 per cent on heavy volume Thursday.
GM, Ford can't give them away: Here's about all you need to know about the auto figures for October: with the possible exception of DaimlerChrysler, the Big Three automakers continue to try and bribe consumers to buy their cars and trucks - and consumers, in growing numbers, are saying: "No thanks." General Motors, the world's largest automaker, saw its sales fall by 5 per cent in October, and Ford's sales dropped by a similar amount - the fifth month in a row that Ford has seen its sales slide year-over-year. The Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler saw sales rise by a relatively puny 2 per cent, which coincidentally was about the same as the industry average. And what about Toyota, Nissan and Honda? They had their best October ever, despite the fact that their incentives are substantially smaller than the ones offered by Detroit's finest. Enough said.
Update: Reader Don McCullough says: "The way car manufacturers "massage" the numbers is a joke. Talk about being gullible; they (auto makers, salesmen) ask us first how we intend to pay (cash or over time) and [then] adjust the selling price accordingly or trade allowance. If you think you are getting "thousands" in incentives then I have some wonderful "Snake Oil" that will cure your every ill." Thanks for that, Don. We feel your pain. And Trev Jones says that GM "uses lottery type rebates and other tricky incentives, instead of just making a good reliable car at a fair price," but that "people are getting wise" to this strategy. Trev says he bought a Honda.
Orchid thief gets fine, probation: Anyone who has read the book The Orchid Thief, or seen the bizarre spinoff of the book that was the movie Adaptation - in which actor Chris Cooper played a toothless orchid hunter/philosopher - knows that orchids can compel otherwise normal people to do strange things. Just ask notorious orchid smuggler Michael Kovach. Mr. Kovach came upon a never-before-seen example of the "lady slipper" orchid - a breed some called the most spectacular find in a century - in the mountains of Peru, smuggled it into the U.S. in 2002 and with the assistance of a Florida nursery had it introduced into the official orchid world and named after himself (phragmipedium kovachii). He was sentenced this week to two years probation and fined $1,000. As for the rare orchid that bears his name, there are reports that all but a few flowers from the original location in Peru have been dug up and sold on the black market.
Playboy makes a comeback: Remember all those stories about how magazines like Playboy and Penthouse were being killed by the Internet and soft-core consumer mags like Maxim and FHM? Well, it seems Hef and the gang at the mansion still have some kick left in them after all. Playboy reported a healthy profit and a rise in revenue for the latest quarter, making $1.9-million on sales of $80.2-million. Chief executive officer Christie Hefner, daughter of you-know-who, says the company has high hopes for some of its new ventures, including a Playboy-themed nightclub and casino in Las Vegas and a Playboy: The Mansion simulation-style video game due out next year.
Get your exercise tips from Rocky: It looks as though the vicious, expensive, drawn-out war between Rosie O'Donnell and the publishers of her self-titled magazine hasn't stopped anyone in the industry from considering new celebrity-based mags. Now American Media, publisher of the National Enquirer, is set to launch Sylvester Stallone's exercise and fitness magazine, entitled Sly. Coincidentally enough, its launch will coincide with the start of the diminutive, muscle-bound actor's new TV show, The Contender. Spokespeople said Mr. Stallone would be "very hands-on" when it came to the editorial content and direction of the magazine. Editorial assistants and managing editors should consider themselves warned.
It's like deja vu all over again: Everyone's been getting nostalgic for the 1980s, but this might be carrying things a little too far: in a flashback to the tale of little Jessica McClure in 1987, a toddler in Alabama was rescued by firefighters after being trapped in a well for more than 13 hours. Da'jour McMillian, 22 months old, fell into the abandoned well while playing in a field in Frisco City, near Mobile. Jessica McClure was 18 months old when she fell into a well near Midland, Texas and became trapped. She was rescued by firefighters two-and-a-half days later. Jessica graduated from Greenwood High School this year.
Kuwaitis get oil bonus: While you're grumbling about how high crude oil prices are pushing up the cost of gasoline, Albertans are watching their province's bottom line get fatter and fatter - and citizens of oil-rich Kuwait are getting something even better: cash. Sheikh Ahmad Fahd al-Sabah, the ruler of this tiny Middle Eastern country (smaller in size than West Virginia), has decided he can afford to give every Kuwaiti 200 dinar, which works out to be almost $700 (U.S.). Almost a million residents will get the payment, but they make up less than 50 per cent of the population - the rest of Kuwait's 2.4 million people are foreign workers. The country was expecting to run a deficit this year, but the climb in oil prices means it will likely have a surplus of as much as $8-billion.Note: A reader points out that Alaskans also get paid cash from oil revenues. This year, every resident - more than 600,000 - gets $919.84 from the state oil fund, which holds about $27-billion. Thanks go out to astute reader John-Olga Alvarez Mesa.
PDA market so hot it's shrinking: Personal digital assistants - PDAs - are about the hottest thing around, aren't they? With the frenzy of demand for Palm handhelds and RIM's BlackBerry and other similar devices, the PDA market must be growing like crazy. Or not. In fact, according to the latest survey by market researcher IDC, PDA sales fell in the third quarter by almost 9 per cent compared with the same period last year. And it's not just a one-quarter phenomenon, either - the IDC says the latest period makes three quarters in a row where sales have been lower year-over-year. One reason for the drop is that Sony has pulled out of the market, killing its Palm-based Clie in the U.S. And the other reason is that many phones - including the latest Palm Treos and the more recent BlackBerrys - can now handle all the same functions as a PDA. Long live the smartphone
If Grand Theft Auto was a movie: Although they are still thought of as eye candy for teens, or mind-numbing violence aimed at mouth-breathers and miscreants, video games have long since become a major money-making business, one that rivals the movie industry for size. Nothing proves that better than the biggest-selling video-game franchise to date, Grand Theft Auto, from Take-Two Interactive - which came out Tuesday with the latest title in the series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The previous title, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, sold more than 12 million copies, racking up sales of almost $800-million, and the sequel is expected to sell at least as many. By way of comparison, Men in Black took in about the same amount at the box office.
Want a little spice with your pop?: Maybe all the competition with Coca-Cola is driving the folks at Pepsi-Cola a little nuts, but the purveyor of flavoured sugar water has just announced another "limited-time" soft drink for the holidays. The first, Mountain Dew Pitch Black - which came out in time for Halloween - doesn't sound all that odd. It's the regular bubbly pop with a "blast of black grape flavor." But the second seems a little off the wall: Pepsi Holiday Spice is described as Pepsi-Cola with a "spicy finish of ginger and cinnamon." Maybe after a few eggnogs that might seem like a good idea, but not right now. Sounds like the folks at Pepsi-Cola got a brain wave from Jones Soda, which came out with a special flavour last year on Thanksgiving: Turkey and Gravy. Sure, it tasted horrible, but they sold thousands of cases anyway.
Cat market expected to boom: "I'd love to have a cat," your significant other tells you - "but I'm really allergic." No problem, you reply. I just bought one of the new allergy-free cats from Allerca Inc. The company says it is now taking orders for cats that have been genetically modified so they don't produce the irritating substance, which comes out in their saliva and through their skin. Of course, some of the early experiments produced a breed of carnivorous super-cat with a taste for human flesh, but now that they've got the bugs worked out everything should be fine.
Ted sells phones, and some other things: If you were wondering why Ted Rogers is shelling out $1.4-billion or so for Microcell (which sells the Fido brand of cell phones), a peek inside the latest quarterly results from Rogers Communications provides a clue: it's because cell phones are about the only thing that Ted makes money at. In the most recent period, Rogers boosted its operating profit by $56-million or 14 per cent - and the wireless unit accounted for almost 85 per cent of that amount. The minuscule operating profit generated by the cable division and the media division was more than wiped out by a $9-million operating loss at the Blue Jays unit. And the overall profit margin at Rogers dropped in the quarter because shrinking margins at both cable and media more than outweighed the expansion of margins at the wireless unit. So keep racking up those cell phone minutes - Ted needs them.
Terry makes as much as Yahoo: In its latest quarter, on-line portal company Yahoo Inc. made a profit of $253-million (U.S.) - although, of course, about half of that was a special one-time windfall from a stake in rival Google. In any case, shareholders and other investors might be interested to know that Yahoo chief executive officer Terry Semel made substantially more than that - about $290-million - by selling Yahoo shares over the past six months. The latest chunk was 2.45 million shares Mr. Semel sold on October 21, a result of the exercise of stock options. That sale (the largest single stock sale ever by a Yahoo executive) netted him $86.4-million. In the past six months, the Yahoo CEO has sold about 8.4 million shares. But don't feel too bad - Mr. Semel still owns about one million shares of the company and has 9.7 million options.
Spam King must step down: This might make you feel a little better the next time you have to close dozens of pop-up windows or spend an hour removing "spyware" or "mal-ware" from your computer: A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order against Stanford Wallace, a man known as the "Spam King," which will force him to disable most of his software. Mr. Wallace's case is the first action launched by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in its crackdown on ad-ware and spam. He has also allegedly been selling software called "Spy Wiper" and "Spy Deleter" that the FTC says doesn't work.
The New York kid rides again: Not content with having pressured Wall Street brokers into signing a $1.4-billion (U.S.) settlement for conflict of interest, putting the fear of God into mutual funds over late trading and sending the stock price of several large insurance companies into the tank because of a probe into broker commissions, New York Marshal... er, Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer is going after the music industry. He seems to think that the money record companies like EMI and Warner Music pay to "independent" agents to get their music on the radio sounds suspiciously like the commissions that mutual funds and insurance companies pay "independent" agents to push their products. Can you say "payola?"
I'm not a terrorist - Google says: As all-powerful as Google might be, it's just a search engine, right? Sure, it makes it easier to find that specialty store with the chocolate you like, or to prove to a friend that 1940s movie legend Hedy Lamarr helped invent the cellphone, but how important could it possibly be? Well, it probably saved the life of Australian journalist John Martinkus, who was kidnapped in Baghdad as a suspected U.S. spy. After his captors looked him up using Google, however, they became convinced that he was just a journalist and he was released unharmed. Maybe blogs are worth something after all :-).
Your camera is in mourning: You might not have heard of Lewis Urry, who was born in tiny Pontypool, Ontario (just north of Toronto) in 1927, but if you have ever used a digital camera, music player, laptop or cell phone then you owe him a debt of gratitude. He invented the batteries that make most of your favourite portable gadgets work, while employed at Union Carbide Co. in Ohio in the 1950s (which later became Energizer). He had more than 51 patents on various kinds of batteries, and an estimated 80 per cent of the world's dry-cell batteries are based on his research. He died after a short illness.
Help! My TV is in distress: Picture this scene: Chris van Rossman is sitting in his apartment in tiny Corvallis, Oregon minding his own business, watching one of the four channels he gets on his big-screen TV, when suddenly a horde of Air Force guardsmen, police officers and search and rescue teams are banging on his door to see what's the matter. Why? Because Mr. van Rossman's fancy Toshiba TV was sending out an international distress signal, that's why. The code is used by sailors and pilots to alert searchers to their whereabouts after an accident. Did the Air Force and police wonder about their mission as they followed the signal to Mr. van Rossman's apartment rather than out to sea or towards a plane-crash site? That's not clear. What is clear is that Toshiba's TV was desperate to find someone who could make use of all its features, and decided to call for help.
The other anti-trust battle: By now, everyone's pretty familiar with the struggle Microsoft has been having with the European Union over allegations of anti-competitive practices by EU competition cop Mario Monti, but less well-known is the case involving another gigantic, globe-spanning corporation: Coca-Cola. The purveyor of flavoured sugar-water has just settled a longstanding battle with the EU over its restrictive practices, by agreeing to change its behaviour in exchange for the case being dropped. Coke has said it will stop signing restaurants and stores to exclusive sales agreements, and will also allow other brands of soft drink to be sold in Coke-branded coolers. Vive la pop libre!
Honest, we're not dinosaurs: The music industry - at least some parts of it - seem to be doing their best to evolve a little to fit their market, instead of just suing everybody and their aunt for downloading. According to a recent report, the band U2 has done a deal with Apple to sell a special edition iPod music player that comes pre-loaded with the group's next album and some of their older songs as well. Along the same lines, EMI says it will release Robbie Williams's next album on a memory card that can be used in a digital music player, PDA or even a cell phone.
Hey - this is serious stuff: Professor Bill Tsutsui, who teaches history at the University of Kansas, is a serious and scholarly man. He has asked a number of other serious scholars from Harvard, Vanderbilt and other prestigious universities to come to Kansas and talk about the historical and sociological ramifications of... wait for it... Godzilla. Yes, the evil (but sometimes good) lizard who crushed tiny replica cities and sent townsfolk fleeing for their lives in dozens of cheesy monster movies like Godzilla vs. Mothra (my personal favourite) is now the subject of a scholarly conference. Someone might want to tell Professor Tsutsui that his quest to have Godzilla "taken more seriously," as he puts it, might be easier to pull off if he didn't have a 28-foot high inflatable lizard set up in the lobby of the University of Kansas library building.
More like Lukewarm Wheels: If you're of a certain age (as I am) you probably remember hours of fun and enjoyment in your friend's basement, playing with either Barbies or Hot Wheel racing cars. In my case, of course, we played with both -- strapping Barbie and Skipper onto Hot Wheels cars and sending them over what we called the "fiery jump of death" (too much exposure to Evel Knievel). But I digress. It seems that both Barbie and the Hot Wheels are getting a little long in the tooth these days, since Mattel just announced moribund financial results for the latest quarter and its two flagship brands were largely to blame. Sales of Barbie tanked by 13 per cent and Hot Wheels were down 9 per cent. And what rose? Sales of board games and puzzles. Anyone want to play Monopoly?
Looking for work? Think coal: All we hear about from south of the border is how stubbornly unresponsive the U.S. job market is, and how layoffs are increasing and not enough people can find work. Maybe they haven't noticed the planes flying low over the beaches and the football games - the ones towing banners offering high pay and benefits for entry-level jobs. Just one problem: The jobs are entry-level coal-mining jobs. Coal companies are desperately trying to attract new workers to replace the thousands that have quit the industry and the thousands more that are due to retire in the next few years. They are raiding each other for staff and renting billboards, just like tech companies were a few years ago. Over the last 15 years the number of miners has fallen by about 35 per cent and more than half the miners working now are over 50.
GM still paying you to buy GM: Remember last year, when General Motors was getting all kinds of kudos for turning around its business and gaining market share through the clever use of "incentives" - otherwise known as bribes - designed to get buyers into its showrooms? Well, GM continues to pay the price for that little strategy, which reminds me of the legendary Change Bank: "Yes, that's all we do - we make change. And how do we make money? One word: volume." GM continues to sell more and more cars, and makes less and less on every one, because it has to keep cranking up the level of bribes... er, incentives, along with the other car makers. Now GM says it is laying off 12,000 staff in Europe and that it lost $130-million on its automotive business in the latest quarter. Remember the car business? That's what GM used to do, before it became a bank.
Can pudding convince the NFL?: Although they don't like to admit it, sometimes public campaigns and boycotts can have an effect on companies and institutions. But can a disgruntled lawyer living in the U.S. Virgin Islands have an effect on the National Football League by eating nothing but pudding? That's the question Clay Travis is trying to answer, by going on a pudding-only diet for the past month (that's about 219 puddings). Clay, who was born in Nashville and is married to a former Tennessee Titans cheerleader, is incensed that NFL weekend games are not available in the Virgin Islands, something he claims is "essentially a fundamental right of Americans." He is trying to pressure the NFL and/or satellite provider DirecTV to give the Virgin Islands access to NFL broadcasts.
They'd like another option: One of the longest-running accounting fights in the U.S. just got pushed into extra innings. The Financial Accounting Standards Board or FASB, which sets rules for public companies, has been trying for almost a decade to bring in a new standard requiring companies to expense the cost of issuing stock options. But it keeps caving in to pressure from technology companies such as Intel, who argue that expensing options would cost them money and make it harder to attract staff. In 1996 the FASB got close to enacting the rule, but changed its mind at the last minute. In the latest go-round, the board planned to start requiring option expensing in January, but has now said it will postpone the issue until June - giving the anti-expense lobby time to push Congress even harder for some kind of exemption.
Too many Yahooligans: Investors who don't pay attention are often to blame for spikes in a particular stock, but headline writers deserve some blame too. On Tuesday, when Yahoo reported its latest quarter, several wire service reports and news stories screamed that the on-line company's profit had "almost quadrupled" due to a stronger advertising environment, and revenue also soared. Not surprisingly, the stock price jumped. Not mentioned until lower down was the fact that more than half of the profit increase came from a one-time windfall - the sale of a stake in Google. Also left out of many stories was the fact that Yahoo's revenue actually declined, if you exclude the money it has to pay to its ad-search partners, which falls under the heading of "subscriber acquisition costs."
Flu and the economy: Everyone knows the kind of impact high oil prices have on the economy, but what about the flu? Some experts say they're concerned about the impact the flu could have on the U.S. economy, now that Chiron - one of the world's largest makers of flu inoculations - can't supply any because of problems at its Liverpool lab. That will leave the U.S. with only half the supply it usually has. "What if you had 20 or 30 per cent of your population not able to go to work or to school? It would affect the economy," said Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic. The problem is that there are only two large producers, and no one else is interested in getting into the game. Not only are there all the regulatory costs, but anything you don't use during flu season - sometimes millions of doses - has to be destroyed. Sounds like a great business, doesn't it? On the other hand, you could be like Meds-Stat, the other big flu vaccine distributor: It's being sued by the state of Kansas for allegedly boosting the price of its vaccine this week by 1,000 per cent.
Sir Short-Attention-Span: Sir Richard Branson always seems to be the happiest guy in the room - and why shouldn't he be? Not only is the Virgin Group founder and chairman a billionaire, but he's rakishly handsome to boot. He has also never met a market he didn't want to enter, it seems. Virgin is already an airline (Virgin Blue), a phone company, an operator of high-speed trains, a wedding retailer and has plans to offer consumers trips into outer space - and Sir Richard even has his own Apprentice-style TV show. On Tuesday, Virgin said it will compete with Apple in the MP3 player game, with a newly-announced 5-gigabyte music device that also has a built-in FM radio - and two earphone jacks (so you can share with a friend).
Oracle speaks in riddles: Aren't you supposed to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth when you take the stand? It's hard to believe that Oracle Corp. executives are doing that when they say the price of their company's takeover bid for competitor PeopleSoft may be lowered rather than raised. Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison hinted at the possibility last week during a hearing into the long-running takeover offer, and on Tuesday co-president Safra Catz also said the bid may drop, due to unspecified "liabilities" at PeopleSoft. Are there real issues at Oracle's takeover target? Perhaps. Or the recent pronouncements may be a clever way of trying to push the company's share price down so Larry doesn't have to pay as much. But Oracle wouldn't do that, would they? Of course they wouldn't.
Don't bet on this pony: The racetrack just doesn't seem to be the hand-over-fist kind of money-maker it used to be in the good old days, when businessmen could be relied upon to blow every last dime chasing some nag they heard about at the local pub. Churchill Downs, operator of the legendary Kentucky Derby horse race, said it will post a substantial loss instead of the profit it was expected to make for the latest quarter. It seems the good, old-fashioned ponies are being replaced too quickly by slot machines and on-line gambling, and Churchill is taking it in the neck as a result. The biggest factor in the latest loss? The cost of spending on lobbying efforts in various states in an attempt to turn the company's tracks into what the gambling cognoscenti call "racinos." So far, Churchill is throwing snake eyes.
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