31 October 2010

History for the day

On 31 October 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated near her residence by two Sikh security guards.

30 October 2010

History for the day

On 30 October 1974, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman in the eighth round of a fifteen-round bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, regaining his world heavyweight title.

29 October 2010

Good odds, unless you're one of the unlucky ones

Rico says his father, not a big fan of gubs, sends along this letter from the Australian Shooter:
If you consider that there has been an average of 160,000 troops in the Iraq theater of operations during the past 22 months, and a total of 2112 deaths, that gives a firearm death rate of 60 per 100,000 soldiers.
The firearm death rate in Washington, DC is 806 per 100,000 for the same period.
That means you are about 25 per cent more likely to be shot and killed in the US capital, which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the US, than you are in Iraq.
Conclusion: the US should pull out of Washington.

Don'cha just wish it would really happen?

Courtesy of Rico's friend Dave, this little morality tale:

Politically incorrect, if true

On Rico's list, fer sure

The New York Times has a review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Manohla Dargis, but he'd see it no matter what they thought:
The movie opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Directed by Daniel Alfredson; written by Ulf Rydberg, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson; director of photography, Peter Mokrosinski; edited by Hakan Karlsson; music by Jacob Groth; costumes by Cilla Rorby; produced by Soren Staermose; released by Music Box Films. In Swedish, with English subtitles.
With Michael Nyqvist (Mikael Blomkvist), Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander), Georgi Staykov (Alexander Zalachenko), Annika Hallin (Annika Giannini), Per Oscarsson (Holger Palmgren), Lena Endre (Erika Berger), Peter Andersson (Nils Bjurman), Jacob Ericksson (Christer Malm) and Sofia Ledarp (Malin Eriksson).
Lisbeth Salander can finally wipe the blood off her face. After being repeatedly beaten and raped, tied up like a pig being prepped for the knife and shot three times (in one go), the little woman with the large tattoo can sit back in her cool digs and enjoy a much deserved smoke. It’s been a long time coming, literally, what with seven hours of art house pulp craziness— Nazis and child molesters, an evil psychiatrist and a prostitution ring— which, among other things, proves that women in trouble never go out of style.
These days a miraculously timed email is more apt to come to a damsel’s rescue than the cavalry, but whether she’s Pauline in peril or Lisbeth, danger is familiar business for women. Familiar and lucrative, to judge by the popularity of the books in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy— The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and now The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest— and the movies that followed. Certainly the wild success in both forms explains why this is one distaff story Hollywood can get behind: even as the final Swedish movie brings the initial screen cycle to a close, David Fincher is directing the first American adaptation, a sign that a good, possibly great screen version might still happen.
Until then, there are the Swedish imports, including the latest, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, directed by Daniel Alfredson. Far better, there’s also that girl, the genius computer hacker played by Noomi Rapace. Although bulkier and older than Larsson’s pin-weight creation, Ms. Rapace over the course of the three movies has made this tricky, irresistible character her own, a particularly noteworthy achievement given that Lisbeth (who might be autistic) leans to degrees of expressive inexpressiveness. With her hard gaze and underlying menace, Ms. Rapace— with Salander as her guide— holds your attention in these mostly unmemorable movies. Particularly crucial is her punishingly physical performance, which underscores that this is very much a story about what some men do to women’s bodies.
Salander’s own body receives some of the worst abuse. The last time we saw her, she had planted an ax in her father’s head, but only after she was shot three times (by dear old Dad) and buried (by her semi-mutant half-brother). As it turns out, all unhappy families really are unhappy in their own way: when she was twelve, the precociously capable Salander torched her father, Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), a Soviet spy turned wife beater and sex trafficker, with very powerful Swedish friends. Hoping to protect her mother, the daughter barbecues her father, leading to Salander’s longtime institutionalization. She enters the most recent movie as slicked in gore as Mel Gibson’s Jesus, whose torment and resurrection she parallels.
The Hornet’s Nest feels very much like the concluding chapter it is, with neatly tied loose ends and closing remarks, if one that plays out as something of a secular passion play. That Lisbeth has been nearly martyred again and again in a crucible of male violence is part of the trilogy’s kink and probably a large part of its appeal. Unfortunately for those who like to see Salander in flamboyant action, she spends much of this movie confined, first in a hospital and then in jail, where she prepares for the court trial that will seal her fate partly by working out like a wee Travis Bickle. For her, life has been defined by continuous suffering and raging battles with enemies fought on all fronts: mental, physical, technological, and legal.
If she needs every resource at her disposal, it’s because the sins, individual and institutional, of the father, or rather fathers, weighed heavily on the trilogy. The overarching narrative is filled with the evil that men do to women: wives, daughters, prostitutes, even unlucky female passers-by. But the villains aren’t simply isolated rogues, as they tend to be in American movies; they’re also systems of oppression, ranging from the nominally personal (abusive parent and child) to the overtly political (oppressed citizen and state). For her part, Salander might be a loner but she believes in collective action, waging war with the help of a few good men, chiefly Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, reliably appealing), an activist left-wing journalist.
Like the earlier movies, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest trades on the spectacle of female suffering, including a repeat of the ghastly rape in the first flick. At the same time, as in certain slasher films from the 1970s and high-end thrillers that borrow from a similar horror playbook, the violence against women in the Millennium movies is answered by a young woman, the one whose bad attitude is as unapologetic as that of any male avenger. Salander hits (and sometimes shoots) back and never says sorry. Every so often, she responds to some violence with a small, mean smile that the camera makes sure to capture. There’s satisfaction in that smile, maybe cynicism, but no evident moral complexity.
Mr. Alfredson directed the second movie as well, and his work is again essentially functional, limited to clumsy action sequences and television-ready conversations. He doesn’t prettify the violence in either movie, which might be unintentional but makes them feel more honest than the first did. That more visually ambitious effort, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, softened all the ugliness with haunted, wintry tableaus, whereas Mr. Alfredson has to make do with a Stockholm that hardly conveys a noir nightmare. It looks so banal, which— with the hot, bisexual babe and heroic leftist journalist— might explain why a revenge fantasy as crudely plotted, disreputably pleasurable, and aesthetically irredeemable as any churned out in the lower cinematic depths has made it to American art houses. Here, payback seems so civilized.

Would you buy a car from these people?

Rico says it seems the Chinese built a thirteen-story building in Shanghai with really lousy support structures, then decided to excavate for an underground garage next to it, with foreseeable consequences:

Hollywood, redux

Courtesy of Rico's friend John Robinson, this:

Over in the night, as usual

History for the day

On 29 October 1929, stock prices collapsed on the New York Stock Exchange. Amid panic selling, thousands of investors were wiped out.

Movie reviews of the day

Rico says one's a thumb up, and one's a thumb down.

Rico says a big thumb's up for Havana, starring Robert Redford and a host of other familiar faces. Set in its namesake just prior to the Revolution, it's a love story between Redford and the radiantly beautiful Lena Olin, who's married to the (we think) murdered Raul Julia. From the imdb.com plot summary:
December 1958, Cuba: Professional gambler Jack Weil (played by Robert Redford) visits Havana, trying to organize a big poker game. On the ship, he meets Roberta Duran (played by Lena Olin) and falls in love with her. Shortly after they arrive in Cuba, Roberta and her Cuban husband, the revolutionary Arturo Duran (played by Raul Julia), are arrested and tortured. Arturo is reported "shot while trying to escape", but Jack manages to get Roberta free again. He can't, however, keep her from continuing to support the revolution. Jack has to make a choice between the beautiful woman who keeps putting herself in harms way and the biggest poker game of his life; between the man he could be and the man he is.

Rico says a big thumb's down for The Blood of Fu Manchu, starring (who else?) Christopher Lee as the good doctor, out to rule the world again by inoculating ten women with poison to kill ten world leaders. Florid and overdone, even for a Fu Manchu movie, Rico didn't watch much of it before (a rare thing for Rico) turning it off.

Civil War for the day

Admrial John Dahlgren

28 October 2010

Stupidity isn't only in New York, but it's rampant

The AP has the story, via SASSnet.com:
New York City residents who want to own a gun may soon be denied permits if they are litterbugs, if they are bad drivers, or if they have fallen behind on a few bills. Under proposed revisions to the police department's handgun, rifle, and shotgun permit procedures, the NYPD can reject gun license applicants for a number of reasons, including:
If they have been arrested or convicted of almost any violation, in any state; having a "poor driving history"; having been fired for "circumstances that demonstrate lack of good judgment"; having "failed to pay legally required debts"; being deemed to lack "good moral character"; or if any other information demonstrates "other good cause for the denial of the permit."
Critics say many of the restrictions are vague, have nothing to do with one's fitness to own a gun, and are unconstitutional. Supporters say the new restrictions will make gun purchasing more efficient and don't give the NYPD any more power than it already has.
According to a report of the Governmental Affairs Division, the changes came about as the result of two recent Supreme Court decisions. "In District of Columbia v. Heller the Court found that a District of Columbia law banning the possession of handguns in the home was invalid due to the rights conferred by the Second Amendment; in McDonald v. City of Chicago, Illinois, the Court applied that right equally to the states," the report says.
As result, Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., chairman of the Public Safety Committee, introduced a proposal to lower the city's fees for gun permits to ones that more accurately reflect what the city spends to issue them. "Now the fees are going to be much less and they're going to have a relationship to the amount of administrative costs that are involved, and in that way it will withstand the Constitution and the court challenge that most people expect will be coming down the road," Vallone told FoxNews.com.
The current $340 fee for all pistol licenses would be lowered to $70 for a premises license and $110 for a carry license. Rifle and shotgun permits would drop from $140 to $65. Costs for license renewals would also be significantly reduced.
With the lower fees, the New York Police Department also introduced revisions to the police department's gun permit procedures, which, unlike Vallone's bill, need only approval from the mayor's office, not the City Council.
"Although I do have oversight capability and I can have a hearing on it, I don't have any formal say in it," Vallone said.
Councilmember Dan Halloran says those revisions are intended to give the police more power to deny licenses, which could counter a possible spike in gun ownership triggered by the lower fees.
But Halloran and Vallone say the proposed restrictions give the NYPD so much authority that they violate the Second Amendment. "The disqualification categories are downright scary. They're completely open to interpretation and they really don't measure anybody's fitness to own a gun," Halloran told FoxNews.com. He pointed to a restriction stating applicants can be denied if they've "been arrested, indicted, or convicted for a crime or violation, except minor traffic violations. So now the city can deny a permit for a building code violation, a sanitation ticket for failing to sweep the sidewalk, an array of non-criminal acts," Halloran said. Another troublesome restriction, Halloran said, is one that allows permit denial if "the applicant has failed to pay legally required debts such as child support, taxes, fines, or penalties imposed by governmental authorities." "So people who are in foreclosure, or have credit card judgments, maybe filed bankruptcy, can now be legally denied," he said.
Applicants can also be denied, under the new restrictions, if they've "been terminated from employment under circumstances that demonstrate lack of good judgment or lack of good moral character."
"It seems to me it's more of an application to be Pope than to be a gun owner," Vallone said. "I don't know anyone who would pass this thing. Anyone who has ever tried marijuana or has a bad driving history, lost a job regarding a lack of judgment, those are ridiculous criteria for gun ownership."
But Jason Post, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office, said nothing in the proposal gives police a power they don't already have. "The revisions will make the application process more efficient and give more clarity to applicants for gun licenses," Post told FoxNews.com in an e-mail.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, agreed, saying the changes appear to be a "fleshing out" of existing gun restrictions, and not an expansion of them. "I think it's a good faith attempt by New York City authorities to make sure that their restrictions comply with the Constitution standards that the Supreme Court's adopted over the last two years," he told FoxNews.com. While some restrictions, like paying legally required debts, may seem irrelevant to critics, Helmke says they are not. "Child support, taxes, fines, and governmental penalties I think are legitimate things. Basically, if someone's not complying with what the government requires of somebody, that's usually a sign that you can't trust them to follow the rules with something like a gun," he said. As for whether the rule could apply to failure to pay a cable TV bill, as Halloran implied, Helmke said, "I think he's stretching it there."
Halloran said the biggest problem is that the rules are open to that kind of interpretation, and he pointed to the clause that reads that applicants can be denied for failure "to provide information requested by the License Division or required by this chapter" or "other information demonstrates an unwillingness to abide by the law, a lack of candor towards lawful authorities, a lack of concern for the safety of oneself and/or other persons and/or for public safety, and/or other good cause for the denial of the license," as the most obvious example. "Could this be any more vague and open ended?" he asked. "Ask yourself, would any other constitutional right be subject to such vagaries? Imagine these requirements put to be eligible to vote, to have a lawyer, to be secure in your person or possessions, your right to a jury."
Former federal prosecutor and constitutional law expert Douglas Burns said that, while the Heller and McDonald cases allow guns to be regulated closely, New York's proposal has some legal issues. "If left unchanged, I think there could be some problems in court with it," Burns told FoxNews.com in an e-mail. With a few adjustments, though, the proposal could be made to stand up in court, he said. "I think like any proposed amendments, it has to be fine-tuned; you can't leave in "violations other than traffic" because under NYS law a violation is not a criminal offense, so I think that's a problem. Also, as I said, the debt payment and job-firing language has to be fine-tuned; it is too broad... I think the legislator does raise some valid concerns."
The council is due to vote on the price changes, which are expected to pass, and to advise the police department on the restriction changes Wednesday.
Should the department decide to go forward with the proposed changes, Vallone says he is "seriously considering having an oversight hearing on this topic".
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Rico says that, since he's been fired for (in the mind of his boss, anyway) "circumstances that demonstrate lack of good judgment", he thinks this is a stupid law... (And he shares Heston's attitude, in any case.)

Killing spam

Andrew Kramer has the story in The New York Times:
You may not have noticed, but since late last month, the world supply of Viagra ads and other e-mail spam has dropped by an estimated one-fifth. With 200 billion spam messages in circulation each day, there is still plenty to go around.
But police officials in Russia, a major spam exporter, say they are trying to do their part to stem the flow. On Tuesday, police officials here announced a criminal investigation of a suspected spam kingpin, Igor A. Gusev. They said he had probably fled the country.
Moscow police authorities said Mr. Gusev, 31, was a central figure in the operations of SpamIt.com, which paid spammers to promote online pharmacies, sometimes quite lewdly. SpamIt.com suddenly stopped operating on 27 September. With less financial incentive to send their junk mail, spammers curtailed their activity by an estimated fifty billion messages a day.
Why the site closed was unclear until Tuesday, when Moscow police officials met with reporters to discuss the Gusev case. The officials’ actions were a departure from Russia’s usual laissez faire approach to online crime. They accuse Mr. Gusev of operating a pharmacy without a license and of failing to register a business. They searched his apartment and office in Moscow, according to Lieutenant Yevdokiya F. Utenkova, an investigator in the economic crime division of the Moscow police department.
Lieutenant Utenkova said the search of the apartment turned up seven removable hard drives, four flash cards, and three laptops. Specific, computer-crime related charges may follow after police examine their contents, she said. The investigation began on 21 September, six days before SpamIt.com closed.
Mr. Gusev’s lawyer, Vadim A. Kolosov, said in a telephone interview that his client was not the owner of SpamIt.com and had never sent spam e-mail, but declined to respond to specific questions.
The drop-off in spam since SpamIt.com went down had been noted by companies in the United States that monitor the Internet. “We’ve seen a sustained drop in global volumes,” Henry Stern, a senior security analyst at Cisco Systems, said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. The company pinpointed the closure of Mr. Gusev’s site as the cause for this easing up.
If individual computer users have not noticed changes in spam traffic, it may be because many people have learned to use spam filters that insulate them from the junk that continuously circulates on the Internet.
Kaspersky Lab, an antivirus company based in Moscow, said there had been a notable drop in mass e-mail in the United States that advertised prescription drugs, to about 41 percent of all spam at the end of the September from 65 percent at the beginning of the month. The figures are comparable in Western Europe, the company said. Many of the pharmaceuticals sold through Web sites promoted by spammers are believed to be counterfeit.
Other computer security companies had reported similar reductions in prescription drug spam, although they cautioned that spam volumes were volatile and often spring back to previous high levels. On a typical day, spam accounts for about ninety percent of all e-mail traffic on the Internet.
Mr. Gusev and SpamIt.com have been widely known in computer security circles, and he had lived openly in Moscow. Spamhaus, an international nonprofit that monitors global spam, listed the SpamIt.com organization as the world’s single largest sponsor of spam.
Last year, the Russian-language version of Newsweek reported that Mr. Gusev’s sites were connected to the same computer server farm in St. Petersburg, Russia, called Russian Business Networks, that was identified in a 2009 report by online security experts with NATO as a source of the attacks on Georgia in 2008.
Mr. Gusev filed suit against Newsweek in a Moscow court, denying links to spamming suggested in the article. That case is still pending. In that suit, he cited phone calls from The New York Times to his lawyer seeking comment as evidence that the article harmed his reputation.
Why, after years of ignoring spammers, Russian authorities have now acted has left online security experts puzzled. SpamIt.com had operated in a gray area of Russian law, cybersecurity researchers said. They said it had paid commissions to other parties that had directed traffic to various sites operating under the name Canadian Pharmacy, using a Russian online settlement system. Mr. Gusev has denied in blog posts that he promoted spam.
The spammers, meanwhile, operated entirely in the shadows, using networks of computers that had been remotely infected with viruses, known as botnets, and turning them into relay stations for sending e-mail from anywhere in the world.
Some American security experts have said that the spamming operation in Russia appears to have been protected by Russian authorities; whether for reasons of corruption, national pride, or state security. Because most victims of online crime, and the targets of unwanted spam advertising, are in Europe and the United States, Russian police have typically seen little incentive to prosecute online crime, analysts say.
But recently, President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia has been seeking to expand and legitimize the domestic Russian Internet industry. and move it away from its reputation as a playground for hackers, pornographers, and authors of darkly ingenious viruses.
In June, Mr. Medvedev visited California to meet with Silicon Valley executives. The SpamIt.com site closed two weeks before the reciprocal Silicon Valley trade delegation, led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, arrived in Moscow on 10 October.
Computer security researchers have conjectured that spamming gangs have sometimes been co-opted by the intelligence agencies in Russia, which provide cover for the spamming activities in exchange for the criminals’ expertise or for allowing their networks of virus-infected computers to be used for political purposes; to crash dissident Web sites, for example, or to foster attacks on foreign adversaries. The Russian government has denied orchestrating computer attacks beyond its borders.
Rico says he can't understand people who would even try to buy drugs over the internet, but any reduction in spam traffic is a good thing.

Unhappy Brits

James Meikle has the story in The Guardian:
Britain should stop 'kowtowing' to US demands over airport security, the chairman of British Airways, Martin Broughton, has said, adding that American airports did not implement some checks on their own internal flights. He suggested the practice of forcing passengers on US-bound flights to take off their shoes and to have their laptops checked separately in security lines should be dropped, during a conference of UK airport operators in London.
There was no need to "kowtow to the Americans every time they wanted something done", said Broughton. "America does not do internally a lot of the things they demand that we do. We shouldn't stand for that. We should say 'we'll only do things which we consider to be essential and that you Americans also consider essential'."
The remarks, reported in the Financial Times, were not disputed by BA. No one wanted weak security, Broughton said, but added: "We all know there's quite a number of elements in the security programme which are completely redundant and they should be sorted out."
These included the requirement to remove footwear, brought in after British "shoe bomber" Richard Reid hid explosives in his sneakers on a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001, and differing approaches to checking laptops and other equipment. "Take the iPad, they still haven't decided if it is a laptop or it isn't a laptop. So some airports think you should take it out and some think you shouldn't," Broughton said.
Rules on airport checks and items that can be carried in hand-luggage have got progressively tougher ever since the 11 September attacks in the US.
Colin Matthews, chief executive of BAA, owner of Heathrow, told the Financial Times: "Today's arrangements are incremental and I think there is a case for saying let's start from a clean sheet of paper to achieve what we want to achieve."
Transport minister Philip Hammond told the conference he wanted a new regulatory system, where the government concentrated on setting security outcomes that needed to be achieved, while operators devised security processes needed to deliver them in line with EU requirements. However his department told the Financial Times there were no plans to change rules on checking shoes and laptops.

Oops is now an oceanographic term

Adam Arnold at Sky News has the sad story of a tsunami unwarned:
A system set up to warn Indonesians about tsunami was not working properly when a deadly wave struck the country earlier this week, according to an official. The revelation comes as the number of dead from the tragedy has risen to at least 311, with around 379 others still missing and 20,000 displaced. A three-meter high wall of water, trigged by a massive earthquake, struck the remote Mentawi islands off western Sumatra. Rescue officials, who had not been able to get to the area for days due to stormy seas and bad weather, have now started arriving at the scene to assess the devastation. The tsunami washed away hundreds of wooden and bamboo homes in twenty villages. Many areas were underwater and houses lay crumpled, with tyres and slabs of concrete piled up on the sand.
The fault line on Sumatra island's coast is the same one that caused the devastating quake and tsunami which killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean in 2004.
After that killer wave, many countries set up early warning systems in their waters in an attempt to give people time to flee to higher ground before a tsunami crashed ashore.
Indonesia's version has since fallen into such disrepair that it effectively stopped working about a month ago, according to the head of the Meteorology and Geophysic Agency. The system, which uses buoys to electronically detect sudden changes in water level, worked when it was completed in 2008 but by 2009 were showing problems, said agency chief Fauzi.
By last month, he claimed, the entire system was broken because of inexperienced operators. "We do not have the expertise to monitor the buoys to function as intended," he said. As a result, he said, not a single siren sounded after Monday's quake.
It was unclear if any sirens could have made a difference, since the islands worst affected were so close to the epicentre that the tsunami would have reached them within minutes. Survivors said they had almost no warning that the three-meter wall of water was bearing down on them, despite the laying of the sophisticated network of alarm buoys.

Hobbits win again

Michael Cieply and Jeremy Rose have an article in The New York Times about the next Tolkien movie:
New Zealand will remain the middle of Middle Rarth, at a price. After meeting in Wellington with visiting Hollywood studio executives, New Zealand officials, led by the prime minister, agreed to an extraordinary deal under which they will contribute special financing and introduce new labor legislation to keep the filming of Warner Brothers’ two movies based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit on their shores.
It may seem that New Zealand has grown sentimental over its Hobbits; or, rather, the filmmaker Peter Jackson’s Hobbits. It has built a tourism industry and no small amount of national pride around the creatures, dating to when Mr. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings franchise established a growing movie industry sometimes called Wellywood there.
But behind the agreement is a hard economic reality. Hollywood has the upper hand in deciding where to film its big-budget extravaganzas, and there are many places willing to pay to attract filmmakers. And so the negotiations found executives of a giant American studio sitting across the table from the chief executive of a sovereign nation, population 4.4 million, wrangling over the fate of a pair of films and, with it, a not insignificant part of that nation’s economy and public image.
Prime Minister John Key announced the agreement at a news conference in Wellington, after a week in which thousands of film workers had taken to the streets in support of efforts to save the movies after a labor dispute had stalled production. “This will guarantee the movies are made in New Zealand,” Mr. Key said.
Reaction was predictably ecstatic at TheOneRing.net, a fan web site that has closely followed the Middle Earth movies over the years. “Well, John Key has probably just won next year’s election,” said one post.
“We’re all feeling much happier today,” said Graeme Mason, the chief executive of the New Zealand film commission. Mr. Mason said government incentives and the expertise of local workers would probably have held the country’s film industry together even if the Hobbit films had left. “But where it was apocalyptic, potentially,” Mr. Mason said, “is that New Zealanders are so invested” in the work done by Mr. Jackson and his colleagues on those films.
In a statement, Mr. Jackson said he was grateful to the government for introducing legislation and added, “I feel enormous gratitude to the film technicians, actors, and fans who came out in support of making these films in New Zealand. To the thousands of people who took the time to write and let us know they were with us, thank you.”
Some in New Zealand and elsewhere questioned whether the politicians had gone too far in kowtowing to Hollywood. Trevor Mallard, a spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, told Parliament that Mr. Key, who leads the National Party, had been taken in by Warner, “and as a result of that, they will be laughing all the way to the Bank of America.”
Keith Locke, a spokesman for the smaller Green Party, said overseas investors should have no say in changing New Zealand laws. “Yes, New Zealanders are proud of Lord of the Rings, the achievements of Peter Jackson and the prospect that The Hobbit will be filmed here, but pride should also stop us selling our soul,” Mr. Locke said.
The legislation is expected to require workers to designate their status as an employee or a freelance worker when beginning a project, then stick with it, according to one person who was briefed on the talks, but spoke anonymously because the agreement was not complete. Thus, anyone who contracted individually with producers of The Hobbit as a freelance worker at the beginning of the film could not change status later and claim the rights of a permanent employee.
The future of the back-to-back productions, with a combined budget of about $500 million, came into question when a small actors’ union, New Zealand Actors Equity, demanded that producers bargain collectively with actors on the films. Mr. Jackson, who is a producer and the director, had joined Warner executives and New Zealand officials in insisting that such bargaining was prohibited by New Zealand law.
Perhaps just as important, the agreement also calls for New Zealand to increase its contribution to each film by $7.5 million, in addition to a standing government incentive that reimburses up to 15 percent of the spending in New Zealand by a high-budget production like The Hobbit. In a further twist, Mr. Key told reporters, in a commitment to Time Warner and its global media group, New Zealand would contribute $10 million to a marketing campaign that would tie the films to tourism in the country.
So when Wellywood meets Hollywood, does Wellywood come out on the losing end?
Warner won the agreement after an unusual bit of cinematic gunboat diplomacy. A contingent of high-level studio executives flew to New Zealand with a mandate to move the films if the cloud of labor trouble did not lift.
The production, which was to begin in January, had been delayed for at least a month by the dispute, a factor that apparently contributed to the bargaining for extra incentives.
“The lesson is that everybody is pandering to the film industry,” said Schuyler M. Moore, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer. Mr. Moore cautions that state subsidies for film production often amount to picking money from one pocket of an economy to fill another, and that producers are quick to side with a higher bidder.
“It takes a minute for an executive to say, ‘Let’s wrap and go somewhere else,’ ” Mr. Moore said. He pointed out that a weak dollar, and aggressive subsidy programs in states like Michigan and Louisiana, had made production in countries like New Zealand less attractive.
Even as New Zealand was scrambling to keep the Hobbit films, Warner was exploring ways the movies could be made elsewhere, again with government support.
Mr. Jackson was not present in the meetings with New Zealand officials, though his manager, Ken Kamins, who is also an executive producer of the film, was, along with Toby Emmerich, New Line’s president, and John A. Rogovin, Warner’s general counsel. The discussions were generally smooth, according to the person who spoke anonymously. That person said both Warner executives and government officials agreed from the outset that New Zealand was the preferred location, if the union question could be resolved, and if Warner could recoup some of the money it had lost in the delay, partly from a strengthening of the New Zealand currency. Canada, Germany, and Britain had all surfaced as viable alternative locations.
The films are scheduled for release in December of 2012 and December of 2013, and provide a pair of much-needed, large-scale films for Warner and MGM.
New Zealand’s film industry received an enormous boost from the production of Mr. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and King Kong films, and has continued to be a center for special-effects work on other movies, including James Cameron’s Avatar. The industry had revenue of 2.8 billion New Zealand dollars in 2009, or $2.1 billion; roughly 2 percent of the gross domestic product, according to Statistics New Zealand, an agency that monitors the country’s economy.
In announcing the proposed settlement, the prime minister expressed relief that the cinematic crisis appeared to have passed. “It’s good to have the uncertainty over and to have everyone now full steam ahead on this project,” Mr. Key said.
Rico says that, having passed on seeing LOTR, he'll probably pass on The Hobbit (both of them), too. Some things are better left to the imagination…

Afghanistan, in the back country

As the pickup truck bounced toward a remote village deep in northeastern Afghanistan, the young woman was told by her companions that she could toss her burqa. “It’s free here,” said the woman, Zarmina Nazaria, a 26-year-old nurse. She slipped off her powder-blue burqa and laid it on the rear seat.
The rules that apply to the rest of Afghanistan are often irrelevant in the Wakhan Corridor, a frigid, finger-shaped stretch of land squeezed between Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China that is cut off from the Afghan heartland by the icy ramparts of the Hindu Kush. Here, the one constant of life for most Afghans— war— is as distant as a tropical wind.
From the Soviet invasion to the civil war to the Taliban takeover to the anti-Taliban resistance, the Wakhan has remained largely free of strife. No Taliban show their faces here, nor do American soldiers. Villagers train to be wildlife rangers, not army rangers. The prevalent brand of Islam, Ismailism, is moderate; its spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, is a billionaire society figure in Paris.
Foreign tourists are trickling in, about 200 during each of the past two summers. The trekkers and mountaineers are following in the footsteps of explorers like Marco Polo and Sir Aurel Stein. This year, British and Polish expeditions climbed 20,000-foot peaks in the area.
Long ignored by Kabul, the people lack the most basic services. But nongovernmental groups have a growing presence, finding it easier to work here than in more violent parts of Afghanistan. Greg Mortenson, co-author of Three Cups of Tea, has built eleven schools in the corridor through his nonprofit group, the Central Asia Institute. Foreign employees of the Wildlife Conservation Society track snow leopards and train local rangers.
“There has been no war and no violence in the Wakhan,” said Malang Daria, a local trekking guide who was part of a 2009 French-Afghan expedition that climbed Noshaq, at 24,580 feet Afghanistan’s highest peak. “The people here are very peaceful, very calm.”
More than 12,000 people live in the 220-mile corridor, a series of broad valleys and high-altitude plateaus carved by the Panj River. A vast majority are ethnic Wakhi. As Ismailis, they eschew some of the mainstream conventions of Islam. They do not fast during Ramadan, for example, which is unheard of elsewhere in Afghanistan, where conservative Sunnis predominate.
Ismailis have a modernist outlook,” said John Mock, a scholar of South Asia at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “The Aga Khan promotes modernism.”
Wakhi villages dot Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China. The Wakhan Corridor should logically be part of Tajikistan or Pakistan, but an 1895 agreement between Britain and Russia made it an Afghan-controlled buffer zone to prevent their two empires from touching.
The corridor has remained a no-man’s land. It is so remote that the people still live on a barter economy. During the summer, they trade sheep, goats ,and yaks, usually their only valuables, to merchants who arrive on horseback bearing clothing and other luxury items. Some are resentful of the outsiders, who resell the livestock at a substantial profit.
Wakhi herders tend flocks of sheep, and women in traditional red dresses work the wheat and barley fields. They don burqas only when going to Ishkashim, a village at the western mouth of the corridor where half the residents are Sunni Tajiks. Some Wakhi traders cross freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan over high passes.
In the eastern half, toward China, the corridor becomes a lunar bowl not unlike the Tibetan plateau. This is the Little Pamir, home to about 100 nomadic Kyrgyz families who live in felt yurts above 13,000 feet. Closer to Tajikistan, 140 Kyrgyz families live on a plateau called the Big Pamir. Blizzards are known to blow through in August.
At Bozai Gumbaz, in the heart of the Little Pamir, centuries-old beehive-shaped tombs built by the Kyrgyz sit next to rusted concertina wire left over from a Soviet military base. Beside the graves flow the waters of the Panj, better known elsewhere as the Amu Darya, born from a glacier near the Chinese border.
The Wakhan was not always sealed off from the currents of history. A branch of the Silk Road once ran through here, bringing influences from different civilizations. Outside the village of Sarhad-e Broghil, the ruins of an eighth-century Tibetan fort sit on a knoll. “In terms of religious belief, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Islam have all been prevalent in the region at different times and have left their mark,” said Andy Miller, a heritage consultant in Kabul who wrote a book on folklore of the Wakhan.
Marco Polo wandered through the valley, as did Francis E. Younghusband, the British Great Game explorer whose surprise run-in with a Russian colonel at Bozai Gumbaz led to the negotiations that would create the borders of the modern Wakhan.
Nor are the people here today untouched by the political struggles and violence that rage outside the Wakhan. Mr. Malang, the mountaineer, said his half brother, Daulat Muhammad, 40, a policeman, was killed in August while taking part in a disastrous Afghan Army battle against the Taliban around Kunduz.
Social problems endemic to other parts of Afghanistan also surface here. Opium addiction is common among the Kyrgyz nomads. In the summer settlement of Kashch Goz, several Kyrgyz spend their days smoking in their yurts. With outside help, the Wakhi largely broke their addiction years ago.
The Kyrgyz complain about a lack of attention from Kabul. They say food, running water, and electricity are scarce in the Pamirs. One Kyrgyz elder, Haji Osman, recently asked President Hamid Karzai for aid. “We’re still waiting,” he said. (Mr. Osman has less to complain about than most Kyrgyz, though: he has a satellite dish outside his yurt and a television powered by solar electricity.)
Of the nongovernmental organizations working here, the most ubiquitous are the Aga Khan Development Network and Mr. Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute, which completed a school this year for the Kyrgyz at Bozai Gumbaz. “Their leader organized 50 yaks to bring building materials through the Wakhan,” Mr. Mortenson said.
But the school is still trying to fill its classrooms. Kyrgyz parents prefer that their children herd livestock, said Sarfraz Khan, the group’s regional manager. “We need to convince the people to send their children to school,” he said.
When some locals discuss how the Wakhan might develop, they look east, toward the frontier with China. They say they hope that China and Afghanistan will one day open the border at the Wakhjir Pass, and that China will build a road or railway through the corridor, perhaps to gain better access to Afghanistan’s rich mineral deposits. Afghan officials say they have pressed China on the question. The Chinese side says principally it is important, but practically it takes time and money,” said Sultan Baheen, the Afghan ambassador to China.
Until those doors open, the Wakhan and its people will probably remain cloistered in their world of wind and ice, as they have for centuries.

Rico says it sounds perfect for his idea of a remake of The Man Who Would Be King...

Finally, a candidate one can really hate

Not since Ronald Reagan ran for office has a candidate surfaced that Rico can really sink his teeth into: New Gingrich is running for president. Well, he's only hinting at running for president, but why else would he stick his political toe in the water if he didn't really want to run? Michael Shear has the story in The New York Times:
Is Newt Gingrich playing us all over again?
The former Republican House speaker took the stage at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University on Wednesday morning, calling for a return to conservative principles and limited government while hinting that he might run for president.
A frequent fixture on cable news shows, Mr. Gingrich told The Los Angeles Times that he would decide by March whether to make a White House bid, a period that should ensure more time on cable news shows.
Where have we heard this one before?
It was on 20 May 2007, that the Caucus traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia, home to Liberty University, to hear Mr. Gingrich give a speech in which he assailed the “radical secularists” and decried the “contorted logic” and “false principles” of advocates of secularism in American society.
At a news conference that day, Mr. Gingrich declared himself “totally uninterested in applying for a game show as if this were Bachelor or American Idol.” But before and after, his aides whispered that he was seriously considering running for president in 2008.
Four months later, in September of 2007, a handful of reporters traveled to a small college in Carrolton, Ga., for what Mr. Gingrich called an “ideas summit” that could, aides hinted, form the intellectual basis for a presidential run.
Mr. Gingrich had already said at the time that he would run if he received $30 million in pledges. But even as the ideas summit opened, Mr. Gingrich told reporters that he had decided against running for president.
The decision surprised even his advisers, who had scheduled a news conference to announce an exploratory committee and had built a Web site, NewtNow.org. In comments to reporters, Mr. Gingrich blamed “legal considerations” that would not let him run for president and lead his new group, American Solutions, at the same time.
“American Solutions is in the early stages, I think, of becoming a genuine national citizens movement,” Mr. Gingrich said then. “To walk out of it just as it’s getting launched struck me as absolutely irresponsible.”
So what’s changed?
American Solutions has now raised millions of dollars. And Mr. Gingrich has spent the last several months stumping for Republican candidates while occasionally creating controversy, as he did when he compared the backers of the Islamic center near ground zero to Nazis.
He may yet run for president in 2012. But the Caucus is pretty sure of one thing: We’re not going back to Georgia.

Civil War for the day

Aa panorama of Richmond, Virginia.

27 October 2010

Oops is now a drug company term

Gardiner Harris and Duff Wilson have an article in The New York Times about lamentable mistakes at GlaxoSmithKline, where Rico once worked:
GlaxoSmithKline, the British drug giant, has agreed to pay $750 million to settle criminal and civil complaints that the company for years knowingly sold contaminated baby ointment and an ineffective antidepressant — the latest in a growing number of whistle-blower lawsuits that drug makers have settled with multimillion-dollar fines.
Altogether, GlaxoSmithKline sold twenty drugs with questionable safety that were made at a huge plant in Puerto Rico that for years was rife with contamination.
Cheryl D. Eckard, the company’s quality manager, asserted in her whistle-blower suit that she had warned Glaxo of the problems, but the company fired her instead of addressing them. Among the drugs affected were Paxil, an antidepressant; Bactroban, an antiseptic ointment; Avandia, a diabetes drug; Coreg, a heart drug; and Tagamet, an acid reflux drug. No patients were known to have been sickened, although such cases would be difficult to trace.
In a rising wave, recent lawsuits have asserted that drug makers misled patients and defrauded federal and state governments that, through Medicare and Medicaid, pay for much of health care. Using claims from industry insiders, federal prosecutors are not only demanding record fines but are hinting at more severe actions. Suffering a research drought, drug makers have laid off thousands of employees. Some of those dispatched have in turn filed whistle-blower lawsuits that can lead to criminal investigations.
Justice Department officials announced the settlement in a news conference in Boston, saying a $150 million payment to settle criminal charges was the largest such payment ever by a manufacturer of adulterated drugs. The outcome also provides $600 million in civil penalties. The share to the whistle-blower will be $96 million, one of the highest such awards in a health care fraud case.
When asked whether any individual could be charged in addition to the corporation charges, Carmen M. Ortiz, the United States attorney for Massachusetts, would say only that the investigation was not yet complete.
GlaxoSmithKline released a statement saying that it regretted operating the Puerto Rico plant in violation of good manufacturing practices. The company said the problem had involved only one plant that was closed in 2009. American shares in the company fell 0.35 percent on Tuesday.
Tony West, the assistant attorney general in charge of the department’s civil division, said hundreds of such lawsuits were awaiting federal review. “We’ve opened more investigations, we’ve recovered more taxpayer dollars lost to fraud, we’ve had more convictions, higher penalties and fines in the last two years than we’ve had in any other two-year period,” Mr. West said in an interview.
Whistle-blowers who win earn a cut of the eventual fine. Ms. Eckard will collect $96 million from the federal government, and she will collect additional millions from states.
The suits, all filed under seal, have for years been rising in size and scope, but the collective threat to the industry has been largely unnoticed because the growing mountain is obscured by a wall of judicial secrecy. Each successful claim begets more suits, with more being filed almost every week. The suits are filed under a federal law originally intended to stop Civil War hucksters from selling rancid meat to the Union Army by paying bounties to tipsters. The pharmaceutical industry has become the law’s most successful target because the government now buys far more pills than bullets, and because fraud in health care is common.
Health care cases accounted for some eighty percent of the $3.1 billion recovered by the Justice Department under the false claims act last year, the Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund, a nonprofit whistle-blower advocacy group in Washington, reported. Most of the money is typically returned to the programs in which false claims were filed, like Medicaid and Medicare.
The Food and Drug Administration and the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department both announced recently that they would pursue charges against executives personally under a strict liability provision of the law, something that has not been done since 2007 when the three top executives of Purdue Pharma were convicted, sentenced to probation, and personally fined $34 million while Purdue paid $600 million. The rule allows executives to be prosecuted and barred from government sales, even if they were not aware of specific violations.
Legislation could make such claims easier to win. Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill that permits executives to be barred even if they have left the company where the fraud occurred and that permits the inspector general to prosecute parent companies for the sins of subsidiaries.
Pfizer alone has settled four whistle-blower cases since 2002, and it paid a $2.3 billion fine last year, the largest in history. Whistle-blower cases have become so routine that Wall Street no longer takes much notice of individual suits, while the growing trend remains hidden.
When GlaxoSmithKline announced in July that it was setting aside $2.4 billion for legal costs, including enough to pay for the investigation into its Puerto Rico problems, the announcement was greeted with a yawn. Still, the case may lead to a collective industry shiver because it opens a new frontier for whistle-blower suits. Nearly all previous cases against the industry involved illegal marketing. This is the first successful case ever to assert that a drug maker knowingly sold contaminated products.
“This case will change the way drug makers run their factories,” Ms. Eckard’s lawyer, Neil Getnick, said.
Some of the antidepressant Paxil CR produced at the plant was ineffective because a layer of active ingredient split from a layer of a barrier chemical during manufacturing, the government said, and some lots contained only the barrier chemical.
“The harm is really in the public’s confidence in the health care industry,” Ms. Ortiz said. “When you go to a pharmacy and you buy a drug, you expect that drug is what it purports to be and you don’t expect it to have any micro-organisms or not be sterile or not have the power or have too much power.”
Ms. Eckard’s role in the case began in August of 2002 when GlaxoSmithKline sent her to Cidra, south of San Juan, to lead a team of one hundred quality experts to fix problems cited by an FDA warning letter a month earlier.
This was GlaxoSmithKline’s premier manufacturing facility, producing $5.5 billion of product each year. But Ms. Eckard soon discovered that quality control was a mess: the water system was contaminated; the air system allowed for cross-contamination between products; the warehouse was so overcrowded that rented vans were used for storage; the plant could not ensure the sterility of intravenous drugs for cancer; and pills of differing strengths were sometimes mixed in the same bottles.
Although FDA inspectors had spotted some problems, most were missed. And the company abandoned even the limited fixes it promised to conduct, the unsealed lawsuit says. Ms. Eckard complained repeatedly to senior managers; little was done. She recommended recalls of defective products; recalls were not authorized. In May of 2003, she was terminated as a “redundancy.”
She complained to top company executives, but she was ignored even after warning that she would call the FDA. So she called the FDA and sued. The agency began a criminal investigation and used armed federal marshals in 2005 to seize nearly $2 billion worth of products, the largest such seizure in history. Unable to fix the plant, GlaxoSmithKline closed it in 2009.
Rico says he has friends who still work at GSK; this is not good news...

Halloween joke

A cabbie picks up a nun in San Francisco. Getting into the cab, she notices that the very handsome cab driver won't stop staring at her. She asks him why he is staring.
He replies: "I have a question to ask, but I don't want to offend you."
She answers: "My son, you cannot offend me. When you're as old as I am and have been a nun as long as I have, you get a chance to see and hear just about everything. I'm sure that there's nothing you could say or ask that I would find offensive."
He shrugs: "Well, I've always had a fantasy to have a nun kiss me."
She responds: "Well, let's see what we can do about that. Number one, you have to be single, and number two, you must be Catholic."
The cab driver is very excited: "Yes, I'm single and Catholic!"
"Okay," the nun says. "Pull into the next alley." The nun fulfills his fantasy with a kiss that would make a hooker blush but, when they get back on the road, the cab driver starts crying.
"My dear child," said the nun, "Why are you crying?"
"Forgive me, but I lied and I must confess: I'm married and I'm Jewish."
The nun says "That's okay. My name is Kevin and I'm going to a Halloween party."

Gee, can you say 1776?

"A global superpower of unparalleled resource and sophistication cannot seem to rout guerrilla forces fighting on their home territory."
From a Washington Post article by Greg Miller about the US and the Taliban in Afghanistan:
An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has, so far, failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency or put meaningful pressure on its leaders to seek peace, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials citing the latest assessments of the war in Afghanistan.
Escalated airstrikes and special operations raids have disrupted Taliban movements and damaged local cells. But officials said that insurgents have been adept at absorbing the blows, and that they appear confident that they can outlast an American troop buildup set to subside beginning next July. "The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience," said a senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war. Taliban elements have consistently shown an ability to "reestablish and rejuvenate," often within days of routed by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, "I don't see it."
One of the military objectives in targeting mid-level commanders is to compel the Taliban to pursue peace talks with the Afghan government, a nascent effort that NATO officials have helped to facilitate.
The blunt intelligence assessments are consistent across the main spy agencies responsible for analyzing the conflict, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and come at a critical juncture. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The Obama administration's plan to conduct a strategic review of the war in December has touched off maneuvering between U.S. military leaders seeking support for extending the American troop buildup and skeptics looking for arguments to wind down the nation's role.
General David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has touted the success of recent operations, and indicated that the military thinks it will be able to show meaningful progress by the December review. He said last week that progress is occurring "more rapidly than was anticipated" but acknowledged that major obstacles remain.
U.S. intelligence officials present a similar, but inverted, view: noting tactical successes but warning that well into a major escalation of the conflict, there is little indication that the direction of the war has changed.
Among the troubling findings is that Taliban commanders who are captured or killed are often replaced in a matter of days. Insurgent groups that have ceded territory in Kandahar and elsewhere seem content to melt away temporarily, leaving behind operatives to carry out assassinations, or to intimidate villagers while waiting for an opportunity to return.
U.S. officials said Taliban operatives have adopted a refrain that reflects their focus on President Obama's intent to start withdrawing troops in the middle of next year. Attributing the words to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, officials said, operatives tell one another, "The end is near."
Obama's decision to order an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan divided some of his senior advisers. While no major change in strategy is expected in December, critics could use the latest assessments to argue that the continued investment of American resources and lives is misguided, particularly when the main impediment to progress that analysts cite is beyond American control.
U.S. officials said the two main branches of the insurgency— the Taliban and the Haqqani network— have been able to withstand the American military onslaught largely because they have access to safe havens in Pakistan. A crackdown by Pakistan's military on those sanctuaries probably would have a greater impact on the war than any option available to Petraeus, officials said. But given the Pakistani government's long-standing connections to the Haqqani network and the Taliban, a move by Islamabad against those groups is considered unlikely, at least by the administration's timetable.
The United States has sought to compensate by ramping up Special Forces raids and military air patrols on the Afghan side of the border, and by sharply increasing the number of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan.
Over the past two months, the spy service has nearly doubled the pace of its drone campaign, killing dozens of militants in territory controlled by the Haqqani network and thought to be a haven for al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
Omar and other leaders of the Afghan Taliban are thought to be based primarily in Quetta, a sprawling Pakistani city that the Islamabad government does not allow CIA drones to patrol.
The joint CIA-military efforts have scrambled insurgent networks, causing senior operatives to move more frequently and become more preoccupied with security. Still, U.S. officials said the impact on the Taliban's highest ranks has been limited. "For senior leadership, not much has changed," the defense official said. "At most we are seeing lines of support disrupted, but it's temporary. They're still setting strategic guidance" for operations against coalition forces in Afghanistan. That guidance has shifted in recent weeks, officials said. The arrival of thousands of additional U.S. and coalition troops in the Taliban's stronghold around Kandahar has prompted insurgents to back away and embrace smaller-scale strikes.
"The enemy's tactics have shifted, to include intimidation and assassination," a U.S. intelligence official said. The defense official said that as many as one hundred Afghan government representatives in and around Kandahar are being targeted for assassination by the Taliban, according to U.S. military intelligence estimates.
U.S. officials stressed that the recent assessments are a snapshot of the nine-year-old war and that Petraeus's offensive has been underway for only a few months. During that period, U.S. military officials said, the tempo of American operations has increased four- or fivefold. Last month, officials disclosed that 235 insurgent leaders had been captured or killed in the preceding ninety days. At the same time, Air Force statistics showed that U.S. warplanes and drones had dropped or fired 700 weapons on Afghan targets in September, compared with 257 in the same month the previous year. U.S. officials said they have seen isolated indications of slumping morale among some Taliban units, including a reluctance among some mid-level commanders to replace superiors who were captured or killed, apparently out of fear that they might meet the same fate.
But those examples have been offset by other instances in which Taliban succession is almost seamless. In northwestern Bagdhis province, for example, U.S. special operations forces thought they had delivered devastating blows to Taliban guerrillas, killing the group's local leader, Mullah Ismail, as well as his apparent heir, only to watch yet another "shadow governor" take the job.
The Taliban has dispatched lieutenants to engage in discussions with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But U.S. intelligence officials said the Taliban envoys seem to be participating mainly out of curiosity, convinced that they are in a position to prevail. "If there are elements that wish to reconcile, that ought to be obviously explored," CIA Director Leon E. Panetta recently told reporters. "But I still have not seen anything that indicates that at this point a serious effort is being made to reconcile."

We've heard this before:
The northern, southern, and naval theaters of the war converged in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis, having been ordered to occupy a fortified position that could be resupplied (and evacuated, if necessary) by sea, had settled in Yorktown, on the York River, which was navigable by sea-going vessels. Aware that the arrival of the French fleet from the West Indies would give the allies control of the Chesapeake, Washington began moving the American and French forces south toward Virginia in August. In early September, French naval forces defeated a British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off Cornwallis' escape. When Washington arrived outside Yorktown, the combined Franco-American force of 18,900 men began besieging Cornwallis in early October. For several days, the French and Americans bombarded the British defenses, and then began taking the outer positions. Cornwallis' decided his position was becoming untenable, and he surrendered his entire army of over 7,000 men on 19 October 1781:

Politically incorrect joke for the day

Rico says his friend Rich sends along this one (and don't try this at home):
The owner of a company was confused about paying an invoice, and decided to ask his office manager for some mathematical help. He called her into his office: "You graduated from business school. If I were to give you $500,000, minus 14%, how much would you take off?"
The manager thought a moment, and then replied: "Everything but my earrings."

Civil War for the day

to come

26 October 2010

Closer to home, some real change for a change

Mireya Navarro has an article in The New York Times about changes in the Dinetah:
For decades, coal has been an economic lifeline for the Navajos, even as mining and power plant emissions dulled the blue skies and sullied the waters of their sprawling reservation. But today there are stirrings of rebellion. Seeking to reverse years of environmental degradation and return to their traditional values, many Navajos are calling for a future built instead on solar farms, ecotourism and microbusinesses.
“At some point we have to wean ourselves,” Earl Tulley, a Navajo housing official, said of coal as he sat on the dirt floor of his family’s hogan, a traditional circular dwelling. Mr. Tulley, who is running for vice president of the Navajo Nation in the 2 November election, represents a growing movement among Navajos that embraces environmental healing and greater reliance on the sun and wind, abundant resources on a 17 million-acre reservation spanning Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. “We need to look at the bigger picture of sustainable development,” said Mr. Tulley, the first environmentalist to run on a Navajo presidential ticket.
With nearly 300,000 members, the Navajo Nation is the country’s largest tribe, according to Census Bureau estimates, and it has the biggest reservation. Coal mines and coal-fired power plants on the reservation and on lands shared with the Hopi provide about 1,500 jobs and more than a third of the tribe’s annual operating budget, the largest source of revenue after government grants and taxes.
At the grass-roots level, the internal movement advocating a retreat from coal is both a reaction to the environmental damage and the health consequences of mining— water loss and contamination, smog and soot pollution— and a reconsideration of centuries-old tenets.
In Navajo culture, some spiritual guides say, digging up the earth to retrieve resources like coal and uranium (which the reservation also produced until health issues led to a ban in 2005) is tantamount to cutting skin and represents a betrayal of a duty to protect the land.
“As medicine people, we don’t extract resources,” said Anthony Lee Sr., president of the Diné Hataalii Association, a group of about one hundred healers known as medicine men and women.
But the shift is also prompted by economic realities. Tribal leaders say the Navajo Nation’s income from coal has dwindled fifteen to twenty percent in recent years, as federal and state pollution regulations have imposed costly restrictions and lessened the demand for mining.
Two coal mines on the reservation have shut down in the last five years. One of them, the Black Mesa mine, ceased operations because the owners of the power plant it fed in Laughlin, Nevada, chose to close the plant in 2005 rather than spend $1.2 billion on retrofitting it to meet pollution controls required by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Early this month, the EPA signaled that it would require an Arizona utility to install $717 million in emission controls at another site on the reservation, the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico, describing it as the highest emitter of nitrous oxide of any power plant in the nation. It is also weighing costly new rules for the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona. And states that rely on Navajo coal, like California, are increasingly imposing greenhouse gas emissions standards and requiring renewable energy purchases, banning or restricting the use of coal for electricity.
So even as they seek higher royalties and new markets for their vast coal reserves, tribal officials say they are working to draft the tribe’s first comprehensive energy policy, and are gradually turning to casinos, renewable energy projects, and other sources for income.
This year the tribal government approved a wind farm to be built west of Flagstaff, Arizona to power up to 20,000 homes in the region. Last year, the tribal legislative council also created a Navajo Green Economy Commission to promote environmentally friendly jobs and businesses.
“We need to create our own businesses and control our destiny,” said Ben Shelly, the Navajo Nation vice president, who is now running for president against Lynda Lovejoy, a state senator in New Mexico and Mr. Tulley’s running mate. That message is gaining traction among Navajos who have reaped few benefits from coal or who feel that their health has suffered because of it.
Curtis Yazzie, 43, for example, lives in northeastern Arizona without running water or electricity in a log cabin just a stone’s throw from the Kayenta mine. Tribal officials, who say some families live so remotely that it would cost too much to run power lines to their homes, have begun bringing hybrid solar and wind power to some of the estimated 18,000 homes on the reservation without electricity. But Mr. Yazzie says that air and water pollution, not electricity, are his first concerns. “Quite a few of my relatives have made a good living working for the coal mine, but a lot of them are beginning to have health problems,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s going to affect me.”
One of those relatives is Daniel Benally, 73, who says he lives with shortness of breath after working for the Black Mesa mine in the same area for 35 years as a heavy equipment operator. Coal provided for his family, including fifteen children from two marriages, but he said he now believed that the job was not worth the health and environmental problems. “There’s no equity between benefit and damage,” he said in Navajo through a translator.
About 600 mine, pipeline, and power plant jobs were affected when the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada and Peabody’s Black Mesa mine shut down. But that also meant that Peabody stopped drawing water from the local aquifer for the coal slurry carried by an underground pipeline to the power plant— a victory for Navajo and national environmental groups active in the area, like the Sierra Club.
Studies have shown serious declines in the water levels of the Navajo aquifer after decades of massive pumping for coal slurry operations. And the EPA has singled out the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Generating Station as two of the largest air polluters in the country, affecting visibility in 27 of the area’s “most pristine and precious natural areas”, including the Grand Canyon.
The regional EPA director, Jared Blumenfeld, said the plants were the nation’s Number One and Number Four emitters of nitrogen oxides, which form fine particulates resulting in cases of asthma attacks, bronchitis, heart attacks, and premature deaths.
Environmentalists are now advocating for a more diversified Navajo economy and trying to push power plants to invest in wind and solar projects. “It’s a new day for the Navajo people,” said Lori Goodman, an official with Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, a group founded 22 years ago by Mr. Tulley. “We can’t be trashing the land anymore.”
Both presidential candidates in the Navajo election have made the pursuit of cleaner energy a campaign theme, but significant hurdles remain, including that Indian tribes, as sovereign entities, are not eligible for tax credits that help finance renewable energy projects elsewhere. And replacing coal revenue would not be easy. The mining jobs that remain, which pay union wages, are still precious on a reservation where unemployment is estimated at fifty to sixty percent.
“Mining on Black Mesa,” Peabody officials said in a statement, “has generated $12 billion in direct and implied economic benefits over the past 40 years, created thousands of jobs, sent thousands of students to college and restored lands to a condition that is as much as twenty times more productive than native range.” They added, “Renewables won’t come close to matching the scale of these benefits.”
But many Navajos see the waning of coal as inevitable and are already looking ahead. Some residents and communities are joining together or pairing with outside companies to pursue small-scale renewable energy projects on their own.
Wahleah Johns, a member of the new Navajo Green Economy Commission, is studying the feasibility of a small solar project on reclaimed mining lands with two associates. In the meantime, she uses solar panels as a consciousness-raising tool. “How can we utilize reclamation lands?” she said to Mr. Yazzie during a recent visit as they held their young daughters in his living room. “Maybe we can use them for solar panels to generate electricity for Los Angeles, to transform something that’s been devastating for our land and water into something that can generate revenue for your family, for your kids.”  Mr. Yazzie, who lives with his wife, three children, and two brothers, said he liked the idea. “Once Peabody takes all the coal out, it’ll be gone,” he said. “Solar would be long-term. Solar and wind, we don’t have a problem with. It’s pretty windy out here.”

Naxals; who knew?

Jyoti Thottam has an article in Time about the on-going civil war in India:
One night in May, about one hundred policemen marched along a dirt road in the hills of central India to the village of Gumiyapal, hunting for Maoist insurgents. Jimme Midiyami and her family were eating their evening meal of rice and lentils when they heard the shooting begin. She looked outside and saw a line of men emerging from the forest at the edge of her paddy field. "The police came and we left our food and ran to the next house," says Midiyami. "We were so scared. We didn't think we'd be spared from the firing."
They were, but lost everything else. Midiyami, 50, says the police killed two young men suspected of being Maoist rebels, a group widely known as Naxals. Then they burned down her house; inside were rice and grain stored for the lean season, a few pieces of clothing and the family's life savings of about $70.
In the past twelve months, Indian security forces have been trying to flush out the Maoists one by one, village by village. The campaign has been widely criticized for failing to distinguish ordinary villagers from insurgents, and the anger in Gumiyapal is palpable. "Those were not Naxals," says Midiyami's husband Guddi Kuta. "They were our men." Amresh Mishra, at the time police superintendent of Chhattisgarh state's Dantewada district, where Gumiyapal is situated, insists that the two killed were members of a Maoist militia; he rejects as "one hundred percent fake" the allegation that police burned down the house. "Naxals themselves have done this kind of thing to defame the security forces," he says. "The Naxals play every game."
It is in villages like Gumiyapal that India's war against the Maoists will be won or lost. India's security establishment ignored the insurgents for years, expecting that the rebellion would lose steam and die out. It didn't. Rather, the insurgency has been organizing and expanding over the past decade in remote villages and forests, even as India's economic boom has enriched and empowered its cities. The Naxals, named for the eastern Indian village of Naxalbari where the movement has its roots, today have a presence in more than a third of India's 626 districts. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says they are "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country."
The unrest in Kashmir and the threat of jihadis may be just as urgent, but the Maoists have proved to be more resistant to political and military pressure. Since 2006, nearly 4,000 people have died in Maoist violence— 990 so far this year. Besides the human toll, the Naxal rebellion is significant on two counts: its durability and momentum when Maoism most everywhere else, even in China, is extinct, and the incongruity of it thriving in a country that is otherwise seen, at home and abroad, as a nation on the move.
Now the Indian government has gotten serious about fighting the Naxals, driven partly by the realization that the insurgents can threaten economic growth without even leaving the forest. India's economic ambitions are fed by steel and power plants, and the country is intent on extracting coal, iron ore, and other minerals from the same forests where the Maoists are strongest. Dantewada, the central theater of this conflict, has some of the richest iron deposits in the country. While India is still attracting billions in foreign capital, the Naxal conflict worries investors. Noted Deutsche Bank in a 2 April report: "Unless the Naxal resistance abates, the high levels of risk associated with doing business in Naxal-infested areas will deter investment and hold back the country's economic growth trajectory."
The state of Chhattisgarh has accounted for 30% of Maoist-related deaths in India so far this year. As security forces have tried to encircle the Naxal stronghold there, the rebels have escalated the fight. In April, Maoists ambushed a paramilitary patrol near the village of Chintalnar, killing 76 men, India's worst-ever single incident of Maoist violence. The morning after the Gumiyapal incident on 16 May, Naxals waited, with an IED, an improvised explosive device, for a local bus carrying security forces returning from that operation back to their barracks. It was a rare and brutal attack on a civilian target. The IED killed 36 people on the bus, 24 of them civilians. The Maoists have also unleashed a wave of kidnappings, demanding in return the release of their captured comrades and the end of the offensive against them. On 19 September, seven Chhattisgarh policemen were abducted by the Naxals; three were killed.
India's war against the Naxals is a tactical challenge, the difficulty of fighting a guerrilla movement with a conventional force. But it is also an existential struggle. At independence, Jawaharlal Nehru imagined a nation dedicated to Mohandas Gandhi's ideal "to wipe every tear from every eye". Today's leaders have a less sentimental vision. Prime Minister Singh acknowledged India's "chronic poverty, mass ignorance, and disease" in a speech in May, but posited economic development as the answer. "I think we need a high rate of growth," he said. In this new vision of India, a thriving, liberalized economy will deliver what decades of well-intentioned socialism did not. True, two decades after India's sweeping economic reforms began, poverty no longer defines India, but the basic needs of 800 million people remain unmet. Maoism survives and thrives on their resentment, says Sudeep Chakravarti, author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. "It's a deep, deep anger over India's failure to do what it has always promised."
Rico says you can read the rest here. For those with his taste for puns, you can read about Nixalite here.

Finally back on track

Bruce Crumley has an article in Time about the Eurotunnel:
For most of its sixteen-year existence, Channel tunnel operator Eurotunnel has been a black hole of a business, undermined by crushing debt and massive underperformance. But scarcely three years after Eurotunnel stared down bankruptcy, the company's weaknesses— underutilized capacity being one— now look like opportunities in the rapidly evolving European rail industry.
True, damage from a September 2008 fire in a portion of the tunnel hurt revenue and limited 2009 profit to just $1.8 million, pending a $62.5 million payout from insurers. Once those damages are reimbursed, last year's profit will outpace the company's 2008 performance of $52.4 million and tower over its $1.3 million in 2007, Eurotunnel's first profitable year. Modest numbers, maybe, but a radical reversal. From 2003 to 2006, Eurotunnel lost $7.4 billion.
If Eurotunnel's traffic is any indicator, then Europe is in recovery mode. Traffic on its shuttle service for vehicles and trucks is up for the first half of 2010: 17% for autos and 41% for big rigs. Passengers on Eurostar trains, whose operator, France's state-rail company, SNCF, pays Eurotunnel for Chunnel use, increased 6% over the same period. The company also operates an intermodal transport fleet of ships, trucks, and trains. "Flows of merchandise and people are very much affected by larger economic cycles, and adaptation to slowing demand by both travelers and businesses has an impact on Eurotunnel revenues," says Pierre Flabbée, a financial analyst who follows Eurotunnel for Kepler Capital Markets in Paris. "The fact that it has maintained profitability is very encouraging." On 23 July, meanwhile, Eurotunnel broke its single-day record by hauling 9,382 passenger vehicles between Folkestone in England, and Calais in France. Two days earlier, the company passed the threshold of 250 million passengers transported via Chunnel since its June 1994 opening.
Building the tunnel was a good business concept badly executed, as only an Anglo-French combine could manage. To get Eurotunnel back on track, CEO Jacques Gounon, who took over in 2005, had to address three big problems: huge debt, bad press, and a staff that had begun to turn on itself in reaction to the surrounding negativity. "My aim was to take the gem into the light by getting debt down, returning focus to our customers and mobilizing employees to get behind a plan for the future."
The company's troubles, you may recall, were epic. Construction problems delayed completion of the tunnel and its rail network by a full year, one factor that ballooned the original $7.7 billion budget to more than $13 billion. In the meantime, traffic and passenger estimates exceeded reality by more than 50%. The resulting income wasn't sufficient to maintain the company's crippling $11.8 billion debt: interest payments alone represented 50% of annual sales.
One consequence of the debt-reduction deal, however, was a shrinking of Eurotunnel's already withered share price. Gounon then laid off 900 employees— nearly a third of its staff— as he looked to cut costs. He also boosted shuttle prices by 10% to lift revenue, a move that risked sending customers to ferries and discount airlines. Eurotunnel had one big advantage, though, and Gounon began hammering away at it. "Time is money, and not only do customers save both thanks to our short, 35-minute travel time, but they also use a nonpolluting means of transport," he says.
As part of his growth strategy, Gounon has taken Eurotunnel into a sector of rail travel that has burned other players: freight. SNCF continues piling up losses in the sector, while a relatively recent entrant, Veolia, reversed course, selling its freight business to Eurotunnel. In May, Eurotunnel reinforced its position by purchasing the third largest British operator, GB RailFreight.
Unlike the go-anywhere, haul-anything approach of loss-making heavyweights like SNCF, Eurotunnel maintains profitability in freight by staying small and selective, Gounon says. The company targets specific clients and routes it has identified as viable; for instance, running small trains between silos for a grain producer in Burgundy and then hauling the collected load to a Marseilles-area processing center. Content with being profitable in such niches, Eurotunnel isn't looking to increase its market stake too far beyond its 2% in France and 8% in the U.K.
Gounon is also planning to transform one of Eurotunnel's first failings— inflated traffic estimates— into an opportunity as train service across Europe becomes more deregulated. Despite breaking its own traffic record, Eurotunnel operates at only 50% of capacity. That may prove golden when the expected boom in high-speed rail materializes once giants like SNCF and Deutsche Bahn, and possibly new rivals such as Air France and Veolia, are free to crisscross Europe. It's expected to provoke a veritable scramble, which will significantly increase rail options (and lower prices) between the U.K. and continental Europe.
Wider selection of operators and prices will be a boon to Channel-hopping travelers, and so, too, to Eurotunnel, especially in the run-up to the 2012 Summer Olympics, when all rails will lead to London. Deutsche Bahn will start testing its high-speed trains on Eurotunnel and U.K. rails in October. In anticipation of these changes, Eurotunnel has joined four partners— including infrastructure units of Goldman Sachs and Prudential— in bidding for the concession to operate the High Speed One rail line, which is 67 miles long and links the tunnel's Folkestone mouth to St. Pancras station in London.
The winning bidder will likely have to plunk down $2.3 billion or more for the thirty-year concession. It would allow Eurotunnel to manage traffic on that link optimally for its own business. But whoever runs that section of track is going to be sending trains— and paying Eurotunnel for their passage— between London and the tunnel. Says Flabbée: "Everything that's happened since the debt deal was struck shows Eurotunnel is a very viable company with clear ideas about how to grow and diversify but without getting overextended." It's a win-win for Eurotunnel, a company that's finally on a very nice roll.

Good riddance

Reuters has an article about the fate of Tareq Aziz:
Iraq's high tribunal passed a death sentence on Tareq Aziz, once the international face of dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, over the persecution of Islamic parties, the court's media office said. The death sentence was the first to be handed down to Aziz, who was well known in foreign capitals and at the United Nations before Saddam's downfall. He rose to prominence at the time of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War, when he was foreign minister.
Last year, Aziz was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for his part in the killings of dozens of merchants in 1992, and to a further seven years for his role in the forced displacement of Kurds from northern Iraq during Saddam's rule. He gave himself up to invading U.S. forces in April of 2003, but was handed over to Iraqi prison authorities this year. In August he accused U.S. President Barack Obama in a jailhouse interview with the Guardian newspaper of "leaving Iraq to the wolves" because of U.S. plans to withdraw.
The high tribunal's media office said two other defendants in the case were also sentenced to death. One was a former interior minister and intelligence chief, Sadoun Shakir, and the other was Abed Hamoud, a former private secretary to Saddam. "Today the court issued a death sentence against Tareq Aziz, Sadoun Shakir, and Abed Hamoud for the crimes of trying to eliminate the religious parties in Iraq before 2003," said an official in the media office. "The evidence provided to the court and the statements of witnesses sufficed to convict them."
During Saddam's rule, only the Baath party was allowed to exist. The Sunni dictator crushed attempts to establish rival political organisations, and in particular carried out constant campaigns against Islamic parties. Their leaders were assassinated, imprisoned, or forced into exile. One of his main targets was the Islamic Dawa party of current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim.
Rico says it's pretty funny, Aziz accusing America of 'leaving Iraq to the wolves'; he was one of the wolves.

Speaking of Apple

Harry McCracken has an article in Time about what will be coming from the fruit company:
Apple is fond of saying that its Macs 'just work'. That's a relative term, of course. Macs do indeed deliver the smoothest integration of software, hardware, and services in the computer business, with a record for reliability that most big makers of Windows PCs can't touch. But these days, it's Apple's iPhone and iPad that set the standard for seamless simplicity. Compared with them, Macs are mere personal computers, complicated by features that aren't absolutely necessary, parts that are prone to failure, and interfaces that aren't instantly comprehensible to clueless newbies.
That's one way of looking at things. And judging from last week's press conference at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, it's the direction that the company's own thinking is going. Steve Jobs explained that the event's title, Back to the Mac, referred to borrowing good ideas from the iPhone and iPad and taking them to Macs. Then he and other execs outlined a slate of new hardware, software, and services that seem intended to make the nearly 27-year-old Mac platform feel less like yesterday's fussy personal computer and more like tomorrow's worry-free digital appliance.
The first hints of this makeover arrive in the latest MacBook Air notebooks. Even svelter than the first Air that debuted in January of 2008, they boast beefier specs, fewer design compromises made in the quest for razor thinness, and a much lower starting price of $999. Apple says that they "define the next generation of MacBooks", prepping its customers for a day— probably not far off— when all of its laptops will resemble the sleek Airs more than they do the feature-laden, performance-oriented MacBook Pro line.
Even more than with most Apple products, these Macs are defined as much by what the company left out of their aluminum cases as by what it crammed into them. Like the original Air, the new ones lack DVD burners. More strikingly, they also dispense with hard disks in favor of flash memory, eliminating one of the Mac's last moving parts. (There's still a nearly silent cooling fan in there.)
The downside of flash is that you get far fewer gigabytes for your dough than with a hard drive: the $999 Air's 64GB of storage offers one-quarter of the space provided by the low-end white MacBook that sells for the same price. On every other front, though, flash is a major upgrade from the spinning platters of a hard drive. It runs faster, conserves space and battery juice, and is far less likely to die and take your precious data with it.
I've been spending time with the smaller of the two new Airs, a 2.3-lb. version with a low-profile, wide-screen, high-resolution 11.6-in. display. It's not my personal dream machine in every respect. I missed having a built-in slot for the SD cards my digital-camera uses, and the battery life (an honest five hours) is acceptable but not exceptional. The larger Air, which starts at $1299, sports a 13.3-in. screen and weighs 2.9 lb., might be more my style: it has an SD slot and a seven-hour battery.
Overall, though, the 11.6-incher's iPad-like minimalism make it painlessly portable in a way that most portable computers aren't. A friend who spotted me using it at a conference commented that it looked like I was typing on a piece of folded sheet metal. And when I returned to my trusty 4.5-lb. MacBook Pro after a few days, I felt like someone had deviously replaced it with a boat anchor.
The new Airs may be Apple's most appliance-like hardware to date, but they run the same operating system as their predecessors, OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. At last week's event, Apple also provided the first sneak peek at Snow Leopard's successor, code-named Lion and due to arrive in the summer of 2011.
From what we know so far, Lion will leave the existing OS X interface more or less intact for those who want it. But it will also introduce new options that can leave a Mac looking more like an oversized, keyboard-equipped iPad. A new full-screen mode does away with OS X's menu bar. The Launchpad view keeps your apps organized into tidy grids of icons and folders, exactly like the ones on the iPad and iPhone. New touchpad gestures for juggling windows and apps replace traditional pointing and clicking with some of the balletic swooping around of Apple's iDevice interfaces. (Other manufacturers are building laptops with touchscreens, but Apple's stance is that jabbing at a vertical screen with your finger is an ergonomic disaster.)
Oh, and then there's the new Mac feature that's destined to be simultaneously wildly popular and deeply controversial: within the next sixty days, OS X will get its own App Store. As with the iPad/iPhone version, the store will turn downloading and installation of software into a one-step process, let users update all their apps with a single click, and permit the use of a program on multiple Macs for one price. Apple will decide which applications get in— the list of types it won't approve ranges from those which tamper with the OS X interface to "mean-spirited" ones— and will take a 30% cut as its distribution fee.
Unlike iPhones and iPads, Macs will still run any program you install, from any source you choose. Even so, the introduction of an official collection of apps is bound to impact the ecosystem in ways that are tough to predict. Will the App Store's economies of scale drive prices for apps that would have once cost real money down to 99 cents, or even nothing? Are big-name companies such as Adobe, Intuit, and Microsoft going to make their wares available? Will developers self-censor to avoid the wrath of Cupertino? We'll see.
More than any other major tech company, Apple pursues its visions even in the face of uncertainty, criticism, and second-guessing. The moves it's making will be subject to plenty of all of the above. Ultimately, though, the company does answer to a higher authority: the consumers who buy its products. They'll vote with their pocketbooks on whether the next wave of Mac hardware, software and services "just work". And if they give these changes a thumbs-up, you can bet that the appliance-ification of Apple's computers— and maybe personal computers, period— is just beginning.

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