31 December 2013

Tain't funny, McGee

The BBC has an article by Hugh Schofield about a French guy who used to be funny, but isn't any more:
Dieudonne M'bala M'bala (photo), the man who inspired the controversial gesture known as the quenelle, is at the center of a growing row in France over the acceptable limits of free speech. More generally known by his simple stage-name Dieudonne, the one-time comedian has travelled a vast political space in the last fifteen years.
From being a staunch anti-racist who ran in elections against the National Front, and whose first stage partner was the Jewish comic Elie Semoun, he now openly attacks the Zionist-American axis of power and named Jean-Marie Le Pen as godfather of his child.
He has been condemned on seven occasions for anti-Semitic remarks, at one point describing Holocaust commemorations as "memorial pornography", and counts as allies a motley mixture from Shi'a radicals to shaven-headed far-right ultras.
But despite (or maybe because of) his estrangement from the establishment and, these days, he is now more or less totally boycotted by the media, Dieudonne retains a wide appeal in France.
Thanks to the internet, he speaks regularly to his tens of thousands of fans via Twitter and Facebook. And his videos on YouTube, which appear every week or so, can draw up to 2.5 million hits.
A classic example of his populist, provocative touch is the invention of the quenelle, which was brought to a British audience by French footballer Nicolas Anelka. The gesture has spread like wildfire because it is handmade for the "selfie" generation. For many it has become the new way of showing two fingers to the powers-that-be. But its origins are there for anyone to find out, and they are clearly anti-Jewish. There is no question that Dieudonne harbors a deeply-held animus against what he sees as the privileged position Jewish people hold in society.
So what is it that pushed Dieudonne on this journey from admired comic performer to media pariah, from hero of the bien-pensant left to best friend of Holocaust deniers?
The transition seems to have begun after 2002, the year he ran for the presidency but had to give up the campaign for lack of sponsorships. A few months later he gave a taste of things to come with an extraordinary appearance on a television chat show. Dressed as an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, he gave a Nazi salute while shouting Isra-heil!
In 2004, he headed a list called Euro-Palestine at the European elections. In 2006, he made a surprise visit to the National Front's annual fair, and a month later he invited the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson on stage at his theatre in Paris. That episode included the bizarre spectacle of Faurisson being presented with the "prize for unfrequentability and insolence" by a man dressed in concentration camp pajamas.
The list of provocations goes on to the present day, getting more and more outrageous. The latest is the recording of remarks concerning the broadcast journalist Patrick Cohen, of whom Dieudonne said: "When I hear him talking, I say to myself: Patrick Cohen, hmm... the gas chambers… what a shame."
The comments have triggered yet another police inquiry, as well as a new initiative by the government to try to block his forthcoming nationwide tour.
Dieudonne denies that he is anti-Semitic. He says his attacks on Israel are another matter and that anti-Zionism is a defensible political position. But he says he has nothing against Jews in general, so he is not anti-Semitic.
However there is no question, if you analyse his words and thoughts, that Dieudonne harbors a deeply-held animus against what he sees as the privileged position Jewish people hold in society. The starting-point of his political identity was the defense of black people's rights. Dieudonne is himself half-African. His father is from Cameroon, and his mother from Brittany.
As a comic, his early performances centered around the injustices felt by les noirs. Then somewhere, as his views hardened, the fight for recognition of black pain came into conflict with the pain of the Jews. It is not an unfamiliar story. In the US too, a section of the Afro-American population, represented by the Nation of Islam movement, has shown varying degrees of hostility towards Jews.
Sometimes this is expressed as anger at a Jewish "monopoly" on extreme suffering. Sometimes it is the age-old accusations: how Jews own the houses we live in and the shops we shop in. How Jews are everywhere in politics and on the television.
This is classic anti-Semitism. Dieudonne calls it fighting the "Zionist-American axis", but it amounts to the same thing. What is new is the context.
Dieudonne's dalliance with the French far-right draws the headlines because it seems so bizarre. And it is true that his bandwagon attracts a fair share of ultra-nationalists and theorists of the Jewish-capitalist take-over. His ally, the writer Alain Soral, is a prime example. However, at his stage performances many of the audience are disaffected youngsters of black and Arab immigrant background.
According to Jean-Paul Gautier, author of The Dieudonne Galaxy, these people "feel abandoned by society, they don't seem to find their place in it. So basically what he is saying is: look while you're bashing your heads against the wall, the Jews are filling their pockets. And as a message it works."
For this largely Muslim audience, putting the blame on Zionists is an easy sell.
It doesn't just explain why their co-religionists in Palestine are going under. It explains why back here in France, they are too.
Rico says that this is why the Israelis keep a loaded gun under the bed...

Rico's got a bridge to sell you

CNN has a spurious video (after the Acura ad, sorry):

Civil War for the day

Rico says you can rent or buy this video here:

Apple for the day

http://business.time.com/2013/12/30/apple-ceo-docked-his-own-pay-by-4-million/?xid=newsletter-business

Rico says that's a class act...

Congress cuts public-transit tax credit

Bryan Walsh has a Time article about the weasels in Congress:
Commuting costs Americans money, time, health, and sanity. Workers spend about fifty minutes a day on average getting back and forth to the office, but that number hides huge differences, with some 1.7 million Americans spending more than three hours a day commuting, and another 2.2 million Americans traveling at least a hundred miles a day. (About six hundred thousand people— the megacommuters— are forced to do both.) And then there’s the traffic: in 2011 commuters spent, on average, 38 hours stuck in gridlock, some four hours longer than the average workweek. Commuting costs Americans about fifteen hundred dollars a year on average, and that doesn’t include the eight hundred dollars in productivity that the average American loses because of the hours wasted in traffic. Oh, and researchers have found evidence that long commutes are linked to obesity, neck pain, insomnia, and divorce.
So you’d think that Congress would want to take steps to ease the pain of commuting, perhaps by diverting drivers to public transit, which alleviates traffic and helps the environment. Through this year, Americans have been able to set aside up to two hundred and fifty a month in pretax money for use on public transit. (That includes commuter rail, subways, buses, trolleys, and ferries; basically anything you’re not driving yourself.) But starting on 1 January 2014, thanks to Congress’ failure to renew the credit before heading home for the Christmas break, that tax break will be cut by more than 45%, and commuters will only be able to set aside a maximum of $130 a month. That could cost the heaviest users more than a thousand dollars a year. And, to add insult to injury, the tax credit for driving commuters will actually be going up, with Americans allowed to set aside up to $250 a month in pretax money for spending on parking, an increase of $5 a month.
This is stupid. There’s an enormous public benefit to supporting public transit. The overall effect of having buses and subways available saves an estimated 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually, and reduces carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons a year. Tax benefits for public transit are also progressive— the median household income for the average public-transit user was $39,000 in 2007, compared with $44,389 for the population as a whole. Cutting the public-transit tax credit while increasing the credit for parking isn’t just bad for the climate— it’s patently unfair.
But let’s say you don’t use public transit (and since eighty percent of commuters drive alone to work, you probably don’t). Why should your tax money go to the five percent of Americans who need to use a bus or a train to get to work? For one thing, driving in America is deeply subsidized, and often by people who aren’t drivers. According to a study by the Tax Foundation, just 32% of the funding for America’s roads comes from gas taxes, tolls, or other fees levied on drivers. The rest comes from the general tax fund, which includes taxes paid by people who don’t drive. (By the way, that federal gas tax, which costs 18.4¢ per gallon of gas, hasn’t increased since 1993, which threatens to leave America’s highways badly underfunded.) Compare that with the much maligned Amtrak, which covers 85% of its operating costs with ticket revenue.
The fact that we’re increasing the commuter benefit for parking while cutting it for transit is even crazier, since parking gets all sorts of invisible subsidies, like city regulations that require developers to provide parking spaces when building new housing. “Free” parking on residential streets— common even in places as congested as New York City— actually exacts a huge cost on society in gasoline burned and pollution emitted. Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, found that in one fifteen-block commercial district in Los Angeles, drivers trolling for spots were responsible for an extra 950,000 vehicle miles driver per year— equivalent to 38 trips around the earth— and an extra 738 tons of carbon dioxide. The last thing we should be doing is further subsidizing parking.
But putting all that aside, it’s still in the interests of drivers to see the public-transit tax credit kept higher. The more commuters who switch to transit, the fewer of them there are clogging the roads. A recent study looked at the effects of the 2003 strike by LA transit workers, and found that the average highway delay increased by 47% when transit service ceased. A 2010 study found that, without public transit, travelers would have suffered an additional 785 million hours of delay. And a healthy commuter tax credit does encourage commuters to try transit, which has been on the increase around the country, with 10.5 billion trips recorded in 2012, up 1.8% from the previous year.
Letting the public-transit credit drop is in absolutely no one’s interests and, in fact, the program enjoys broad, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. But the credit is tied up in a larger bill that contains a grab bag of other tax credits that have either expired or are set to expire, and Congress was unable to act before the Christmas recess. An attempt by New York Senator Charles Schumer to restore the full transit credit in a separate bill— the Commuter Benefits Equity Act— failed as well. Congress will likely try to restore the credit in the new year but, even if that’s successful, trying to calculate the retroactive savings will be a headache. But as members of Congress sit in traffic— the Washington area has the worst congestion in the country— at least they’ll have plenty of time to think about it.
Rico says if more Congresspeople had to actually take public transit, rather than being driven around in limos, they wouldn't do this kind of shit...

Why Sitemeter got fired

Rico says he's still getting these reports from Sitemeter:

Visits This Week ........................ 0

In contrast, Blogger reports a lot more folks reading the Rant:
Pageviews today: 374
Pageviews yesterday: 396
Pageviews last month: 20,370
Pageviews all time history: 430,182

FAA announces states for UAV testing

Michelle Rindells has an AP article about drones:
Six states were named by Federal officials to develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the burgeoning industry that could one day produce thousands of unmanned aircraft for use by businesses, farmers and researchers.
Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia will host the research sites, providing diverse climates, geography and air traffic environments as the Federal Aviation Administration seeks to safely introduce commercial drones into US airspace.
Members of Congress and other politicians lobbied intensely to bring the work to their states. Representatives were jubilant about the likelihood that the testing will draw companies interested in cashing in on the fledgling industry.
An industry-commissioned study has predicted more than seventy thousand jobs would develop in the first three years after Congress loosens drone restrictions for US skies. The same study projects an average salary range for a drone pilot between $85,000 and $115,000.
"This is wonderful news for Nevada, that creates a huge opportunity for our economy," said Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada. In New York, Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, called the announcement a boon for his state.
Drones have been mainly used by the military, but governments, businesses, farmers, and others are making plans to join the market. Many universities are starting or expanding curriculum involving drones.
The FAA does not currently allow commercial use of drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015, although officials concede the project may take longer than expected. The FAA projects some 7,500 commercial drones could be aloft within five years of getting widespread access to the skies above America.
"Today was an important step," said attorney Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, noting the announcement came after months of delays and data gathering. "I think we're all anxious to get this moving."
The competition for a test site was robust, with 25 entities in 24 states submitting proposals, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said during a conference call with reporters. At least one of the six sites chosen by the FAA will be up and running within 180 days, while the others are expected to come online in quick succession, he said. However, the designation as a test site doesn't come with a financial award from the government.
In choosing Alaska, the FAA cited a diverse set of test site locations in seven climatic zones. New York's site, at Griffiss International Airport, will look into integrating drones into the congested northeast airspace. And Nevada offered proximity to military aircraft from several bases, Huerta said.
The extent that lobbying influenced the selection of the sites was unclear.
"Politics likely always plays a role in some level in this, but I couldn't tell you specifically what the politics were," said Brendan M. Schulman, part of a New York City-based law group focused on drone issues. "Part of the selection ...is an evaluation of the dedication and seriousness the sites were showing in pursuing this."
The testing will determine whether drones can detect and avoid aircraft and other obstacles, and if they can operate safety when contact is lost with operators. The growing use of drones has sparked criticism among conservatives and liberals who fear the creation of a surveillance state in which authorities track and scrutinize every move of citizens.
"I just don't like the concept of drones flying over barbecues in New York City to see whether you have a Big Gulp in your backyard or whether you are separating out your recyclables according to the city mandates," said Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, referring to a New York City ban on supersized soft drinks. He has introduced a bill that would prohibit drones from checking for criminal or regulatory violations without a warrant.
Huerta said his agency is sensitive to privacy concerns involving drones. Test sites must have a written plan for data use and retention, and will be required to conduct an annual review of privacy practices that involves public comment.
That policy provided little comfort for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Someday drones will be commonplace in US skies and, before that happens, it's imperative that Congress enact strong, nationwide privacy rules," ACLU attorney Catherine Crump said in a statement.
Rico says at least they picked nice, big, flat states to try them out...

So much for global warming

John Bolaris has a prediction about the weather:
An extremely complicated forecast is coming up as we move into late this week. The first Thursday and Friday of 2014 might be days to remember.
First, what I know: your New Year's Eve and New Year's Day will be storm-free. Temperatures by midnight as the ball drops and fireworks explode will be in the mid-20s.
New Year's Day for the Mummers take out possibility of snow flurries (as they should pass well north of Philly) and temperatures in the 30s.
After that, however, all bets are off.
A bundle of upper energy will be diving southeast representing the leading edge of some of the coldest temperatures to invade the Northeast in almost twenty years.
Speaking in meteorological terms, it's called a Miller Type B Storm, which involves two storms, one weakens as a secondary coastal storm rapidly intensifies. Some of the biggest storms in the Northeast have taken place with Miller B storms.
For example, the blizzard of 6 through 8 January 1996 was one of the most paralyzing blizzards of all-time. (Officially, 30.7 inches of snow fell in Philly.)
That is not going to happen with this one, but I'm just pointing out these type of storms are capable of rapid intensification and a lot of snow. They are also the most difficult ones to forecast as computer models. This far out (more than 72 hours) we have extreme difficulty in pinpointing exact secondary location, how much intensification, track and weather elements. Still, a widespread case scenario on various models, ensemble models on GFS, and Euro are both indicating coastal storm intensification somewhere around the Lower Chesapeake by Thursday evening, and then tracking northeast off the coast into a very intense storm off the New England coast by Friday afternoon.
What happens between Thursday late and Friday morning here in Philly is still highly speculative.
Blending the latest computer models, this is the early case scenario: storm formation somewhere around the Virginia coast by Thursday evening, and then tracking east-northeast as these types of storms usually track more easterly than northerly. This should mean more frozen precipitation than liquid, however, with that being said, if the storm is far enough off the coast it would keep the bullseye of heaviest precipitation east of the I-95 corridor and off the coast. That would mean snow for most, but spare us any type of major snow amounts. Also these types of storms have produced snow to rain and then changing back to snow as frigid air wraps in and snow ratios go up.
With all this being said, the one thing I definitely know at this time is on Friday some of the coldest air in some twenty years will strike the entire Northeast, with many locations to our north and west going down below zero come Friday night and wind chills of 20-30 below zero. Philly will see temperatures by day on Friday struggling through the teens and wind chill factors below zero.
Code blue status will be issued for late Thursday night into Saturday. A reminder: pets feel the cold as well, so bring all pets indoors on Friday and allow for only brief walks.
To even guess at the snow amounts at this time would be ludicrous, as we could see hardly anything to a whole lot. As we get closer to a potential storm event, I will start to break down your counts. To do so now would be a waste of time, as honestly we simply don't know yet. Right now I'm rating this a moderate storm potential, meaning slightly better than a fifty percent chance we see accumulating snow late Thursday into Friday morning.
Rico says it's not what he was hoping for... (But it's only Tuesday, and snowing already.)

Movie review for the day

Rico says his friend Kelley forwards this Variety review of 47 Ronin; fortunately, given the reviews, Rico won't have to spend the bucks to see this turkey:
Ramin Setoodeh. a film editor from New York City and Scott Foundas, Chief Film Critic for Variety, reviewed 47 Ronin:
47 Ronin, an old Japanese fable about a group of rogue samurai, ends in a horrible bloodbath. It’s a fitting conclusion for a big-budget adaptation that has left Universal deeply in the red, having suffered one of the costliest box office flops of 2013.
When executives at Universal huddled in 2008 to mull over the story, they envisioned Lord of the Rings, set in the East, circa the 1700s. An early treatment of the script was jam-packed with dazzling sword fights. And the material seemed like a potential home run for the US and the lucrative Asian market (where the similarly themed Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai had generated disproportionately large grosses in 2003). It was one of the first projects the studio greenlit under chair Adam Fogelson, who was pushed out of his perch in September of 2013. (Universal executives declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The 3D martial arts project turned out to be a disappointment on many fronts. After months of bad buzz and two postponed release dates, 47 Ronin finally bowed on Christmas in the US, and grossed only $20.6 million in its first five days at the domestic box office. Overseas, it’s fared even worse, with $2.8 million in its home turf of Japan since its 6 December 2013 debut. The film’s gargantuan budget of $175 million (it cost even more before tax breaks) means it could lose the studio $120 to $150 million, especially once marketing is factored in.
Universal took the unusual step of announcing, prior to the film’s domestic opening, that it had already taken an unspecified writedown on the project. It was meant to signal to Comcast shareholders that executives knew they had baked a holiday turkey.What went wrong? Several sources close to the project say the ambitious undertaking never found its footing. The story kept changing through rewrites and post-production, as the studio and first-time director Carl Rinsch couldn’t find a balance between the classic Eastern tale and the more Western touches like a CGI dragon and the addition of an American star, Reeves, in a mostly Japanese cast.
The first draft of the script by Chris Morgan, who has written five of the seven Fast and the Furious movies, showed promise. It was slick enough to land on 2008’s Black List of best unproduced work. (A stage direction for a ninja attack read: “It’s like the ambush out of ‘Aliens’,” a clear influence.)
Universal suits were drawn to the idea of creating a unique fantasy world like that of Avatar or Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth. The Morgan script made notable additions to the traditional story, including mysterious ogres, doses of black magic, and Reeves’ character, a half-breed warrior named Kai.
Fogelson, chairman Donna Langley, and Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, the studio’s co-president of production, who was a champion of the project since its inception (and handled the day-to-day interference), interviewed Rinsch for the directing job. He won them over after he pitched impressively detailed storyboards of the historic samurai backdrops.
Even though he had never directed a feature before, he was a hot name based on his commercial work and a short film, The Gift, involving a frenzied robot chase. “He’s pretty amazing in a room,” says a source involved in the making of the film. “He’s very smart and passionate and can make you believe his ambition.”
Though unusual, assigning a novice director to a project so large and complicated is hardly unprecedented, with Disney’s Tron: Legacy (directed by Joseph Kosinski) and Universal’s own Snow White and the Huntsman (directed by Rupert Sanders) among recent examples.
But Ronin’s tone grew more muddled as the project barreled forward. One point of conflict was that Rinsch kept wanting to make the film more Japanese, almost like an arthouse samurai movie. The studio, understandably, was nervous. The picture needed to play to mainstream audiences across the world in order to break even. It already had a cast made up entirely of Japanese actors like Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki and Tadanobu Asano. (At one point, Japanese-American actors had been considered.)
Reeves, who hasn’t opened a box office blockbuster since the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, expressed interest in playing Kai, but he had his own concerns. He was worried that the character wouldn’t feel integrated into the main arc of the story.
Scribe Hossein Amini (Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman) was brought in for rewrites to broaden Reeves’ character and to simplify some of the dialogue. It turned out that the Japanese actors, who weren’t fluent in English, were having trouble delivering their lines and had to learn them phonetically.
To help them along, Rinsch had his actors say all of their lines in Japanese first and then in English right after— a puzzling decision in an age when such major hits as District 9, Inglourious Basterds, and even the Fast and the Furious movies have elected to have their “foreign” characters speak in their native languages, with the dialogue then subtitled in English. And there were more drafts after that: The story added a wicked, shape-shifting sorceress (played by Rinko Kikuchi) right out of a horror movie.
The budget wasn’t so monstrous until Universal, influenced by Hollywood’s latest obsession, decided to shoot the film in 3D. That’s when 47 Ronin became the Titanic of samurai movies. The creative team scouted Japan, New Zealand, and Australia before deciding that none of those regions looked ancient enough. The film was eventually shot in England and Hungary, with a design team constructing 150,000 square feet of samurai villages for all those close-up 3D shots.
By all accounts, the post-production process was fraught with tension. When Universal executives saw an early cut in 2011, they had concerns about the story and started ordering changes. Another week of shooting was slated so that Reeves could be made more integral to the finale. A 2012 article from the Wrap reported Langley kicked Rinsch out of the editing room, but two highly-placed sources deny that happened.
Another source with knowledge of the situation said that, in post-production, Universal decided to take the film in a different direction. Rinsch then sought the help of the DGA to ensure his contractual rights were being honored.
A revolving door of crew members came and left. Multiple editors worked on the film, including Gore Verbinski’s longtime editor, Craig Wood. But legendary fix-it guy Stuart Baird (Skyfall) took the lone editing credit. To this day, members of the creative team have not seen a final cut of the film, including executive producer Stuber. Variety has learned Stuber departed over creative differences after he helped land Reeves as the star and never made it to the production stages.
Universal hosted a world premiere of the film in Japan— it needed support from the region, where the cast was well recognized. But it never gained traction there, despite being released in an alternate edit specifically designed for Japanese audiences. Market research showed the key demographic of young men didn’t buy enough tickets.US critics were allowed to preview the film only a few days before it opened. The reviews, embargoed until 36 hours before the American release, were not kind. Universal didn’t spend lavishly on an advertising campaign. By then, the box office prospects for 47 Ronin were grim.
47 Ronin is just one of several risky tentpoles (see The Lone Ranger and R.I.P.D.) that flopped in 2013. But if those expensive failures raise questions about the viability of mega-budget movies that aren’t sequels, don’t count them out yet. While some executives may now be warier of taking $175 million gambles on unproven talent and material, there’s also the fear that a studio may miss out on the next big thing. Which, to put things in samurai terms, is a fate worse than death.
Rico says that, when he was a younger man, 'tentpole' used to refer to a morning-erection phenomenon, but this is Hollywood... But building this turkey on the boxoffice expectations of The Last Samurai, let alone having a novice director and out-of-market script writers? That POS should have put them off samurai films (and anything starring Tom Cruise) entirely... (And when will the suits who green-light shit like this have to perform seppuku to keep the shareholders happy?)

History for the day

On 31 December 1946, President Harry S. Truman officially proclaimed the end of hostilities in World War Two.

30 December 2013

Dysfunction

Rico says it seems he's not the only one confused by the connection between big printing presses and erectile dysfunction:
A television ad for Viagra that features a printing plant has been getting plenty of air time during World Series broadcasts and stirring up lots of questions.
What exactly is Viagra trying to tell us? That the printing industry is inhabited mostly by old guys who, how shall we say, suffer from slow makereadies? Is the ad making a subtle reference to the industry’s limp profits in this age of digital media and online bill payment.
The ad takes place at the K.L. Printing plant, with the focus on a guy running a Heidelberg sheetfed press. He’s your typical star of an erectile dysfunction ad: a slightly over-the hill guy with a gleam in his eye and a bit of a lone-wolf swagger. And played by an actor who probably doesn’t know his fountain solution from a fountain soda.
Why show a printing plant rather than a more generic-looking factory?
And here's the real mystery: what is it about being a pressman that causes our handsome-but-not-too-handsome star to need Viagra? Dead Tree Edition hopes to clear up this mystery by offering a few theories (with some explanatory links for those of you who aren't printing geeks):
He needed more bulk and stiffness in his sheets.
The plant produced a mail piece that failed the Postal Service’s droop test.
The excitement had gone out of K.L. ever since they fired the strippers when the prepress department went all digital.
His butt roll got caught in a tail clamp, though I’m not exactly sure how taking Viagra would solve that problem.
The press’s low-rub ink was rubbing him the wrong way.
Maybe it had something to do with blow-ins. 
Rico says he knows a lot of old pressmen (hell, he's one himself), and they wouldn't like the implications But, for those like Rico who are, thisTwelve Telltale Signs That You Are A Printing Geek

1984 seems like just yesterday...

...and Doug Aamoth has a Time video about a recreation of it in Legos:

Rico says it's no sillier than the Mac aquarium...

Just when you thought excess was going out of fashion...

...Jared Newman has a Time article about real excess:
If Samsung’s $40,000 television wasn’t expensive enough for you, the company has just launched an even larger television for nearly four times the price.
Recently, Samsung began selling a 4K television (that’s a resolution of 3840-by-2160) with a 110-inch screen. Samsung says it’s roughly as large as a king-sized bed. The price, according to The Associated Press, is roughly $152,000.
Earlier this year, Samsung began selling an 85-inch 4K television for $40,000, prompting some hilarious mock reviews on Amazon.
While you might think that Samsung’s 110-inch television is the world’s most expensive television, it’s been topped before. Panasonic sells a 152-inch 4K television for a half-million dollars, and C Seed offers an outdoor television with a retractable two-hundred-inch screen for $655,000. (Some luxury televisions drive up their prices with diamond studs, but that’s cheating.)
For now, Samsung’s 110-inch television is only available in South Korea, but Samsung says it will eventually launch in China, the Middle East, and Europe. Sorry, one-percenters, there’s no word on a US launch.
Rico says that, even if he could afford it (and actually wanted one, which he doesn't), he doesn't have a wall big enough...

Lake Tahoe is looking better and better

Charlie Campbell has a Time article via a BBC article by Daniel Sandford about troubles for the Winter Olympics:
At least fourteen people have been killed in a suicide bombing on a trolleybus in the Russian city of Volgograd, investigators say. The blast comes a day after seventeen people died in another suicide attack at the central station in the city. As a result, security has been tightened at railway stations and airports across Russia.
Moscow is concerned that militants could be ramping up violence in the run-up to the Winter Olympic Games in the city of Sochi in February of 2014.
The Olympics venue is close to Russia's volatile North Caucasus region, and the BBC's Moscow correspondent Daniel Sandford says it was always risky staging the Games so near to the troubled republics of Chechnya and Dagestan.
For most Russians, these attacks came as a huge shock. Despite public assurances that the troubles in the Caucasus were coming under control, clashes between extremists and government troops, and some small-scale attacks, have continued.
More disturbingly, extremism has recently started to flare up further north, in some of Russia's central regions, much closer to Volgograd. This industrial and transport hub is of huge symbolic importance to most Russians. The attacks there, just weeks before the opening of the Winter Olympics, have created unease across Russia. Many are now asking why the country's powerful security services failed to stop the bombers, accusing them of complacency and unprofessionalism.
The threat to the games in Sochi may not be so great: there are hundreds of police officers and military personnel deployed around the area. But the fear is that the bombers may strike elsewhere. These bombs have been a brutal reminder of that.
In a statement, Russia's foreign ministry did not blame any particular group, but called for international solidarity in the fight against "an insidious enemy that only be defeated together".
Regional Governor Sergei Bozhenov said the bombings were a "serious test" for all Volgograd residents and all Russians.
The president of the International Olympic Committee has expressed full confidence that Russian authorities will deliver "safe and secure" Games in Sochi.
The latest explosion took place near a busy market in Volgograd's Dzerzhinsky district.
Maksim Akhmetov, a Russian television reporter who was at the scene of the blast, said the trolleybus was packed with people going to work in the morning rush hour. He described the scene as "terrible", adding that the bus was "ravaged" and that there were "bodies everywhere, blood on the snow".
The figures given for the number of dead and injured are still fluctuating, but investigators and the Russian health ministry told a news conference that fourteen people had been killed. At least twenty others were injured, and Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said the patients were in "a bad condition with burns, with multiple injuries typical of blast-induced wounds". She said the injured include a pregnant woman, two sixteen-year-olds, and a baby aged about six months, whose parents are assumed dead.
Formerly known as Stalingrad, Volgograd was the scene of the bloodiest battle of World War Two, and has a deep symbolism for Russia
The regional governor has announced five days of mourning for all the victims.
The force of the explosion removed much of the bus's exterior and broke windows in nearby buildings. "It is now possible to preliminarily say that the explosive device was set off by a suicide bomber, a man whose body fragments have been collected and sent for genetic testing," the Investigative Committee said in a statement. Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said identical explosives were used in the two bombings, suggesting they were linked.
In response to this second blast in less than 24 hours, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered security measures to be tightened across Russia and in particular in Volgograd.
Local resident Polina Goncharova said the whole city was in shock. "This is the first time in my life that I have experienced anything like this. I have been crying since I heard about the first bombing, and now the second one today," she told the BBC. "There are very few people on the streets. I am staying at home myself as I'm worried there will be more attacks."
The first blast rocked Volgograd-1 station at around 12:45 on Sunday, at a time of year when millions of Russians are traveling to celebrate the New Year.
No group has yet said it was behind the blast. Volgograd was also targeted in October, when a suspected female suicide bomber killed six people in an attack on a bus.
An Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus region has led to many attacks there in recent years. Insurgents have also attacked major Russian towns.
Volgograd lies about 900km south of Moscow, 650km north of the North Caucasus, and 700km north-east of Sochi.
Rico says it's a little late to switch venues, but not impossible... (And risky to put it there? No, stupid.)

Restart the presses!


Bruce Handy, a writer and editor at Vanity Fair, and Dasha Tolstikova, an illustrator and author, have an article and an illustration (above) in The New York Times about old-school technology:
It’s been another up and mostly down year for print media and the dwindling number of professionals (writers, editors, paper mill owners, singing-dancing newsies) who still care about non-virtual publishing.
There were the customary newsroom layoffs, budget parings, and revenue shrinkages. The venerable Boston Globe and Washington Post were each sold to billionaires, the papers’ futures, whether as first-rate news sources or playthings, yet to be determined. New York magazine announced that it would scale back to publication every two weeks; The Onion ceased print publication altogether. One of the year’s few bright spots: Newsweek’s brave but seemingly quixotic decision to return to print in 2014. Yes, it could work, many observers thought, and maybe Tiny Tim will live to see another Christmas!
Is such cynicism justified? The thinking here is that if vinyl records, straight razors, slow food, and absinthe cocktails can all mount comebacks, there is no reason print can’t as well. The keys are marketing, perception and, frankly, snob appeal, plus a few minor tweaks....
Rico says print is what he used to work with, back in the day, and still misses it... (Though The New York Times could buy every subscriber a iPad mini, stop printing and delivering the paper except electronically, and come out ahead.)

We'll blame it on them anyway

JohnThomas Didymus, based in Lagos, Nigeria, and an anchor for Allvoices, has an Allvoices article from The New York Times about Benghazi:
An extensive New York Times investigation has concluded that there was no al-Qaeda involvement in the 11 September 2012, attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed.
The investigation also found no evidence of involvement of other international terrorist groups in the attack. It concluded that the attack, sparked partly by popular anger at a video titled Innocence of Muslims, made in the United States, and which allegedly insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, was led by militiamen who had benefited from NATO support during the struggle to topple the government of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
The report on the investigation, written by David D. Kirkpatrick and published in The New York Times on Saturday, was based on extensive interviews with Libyan residents in Benghazi who had knowledge of the circumstances that led to the attack.
According to the Times, the attack does not appear to have been carefully planned, but evidence that the compound had been under surveillance for up to twelve hours before the attack shows that the attack was not totally spontaneous. However, the report said the violence had some elements of spontaneity and was fueled by popular anger over the video that allegedly insulted Islam and the Prophet.
According to the Times, a crowd of people reacting in anger to the video participated in the attack. Others responded to rumors that guards in the US compound had killed Libyan protesters. American officials who viewed footage of the attack and local witnesses said that the mob of looters and arsonists who converged on the compound after the first wave of attack showed no signs of clearly defined goals, direction, or organization.
The new report contradicts allegations by the Republicans that Obama administration officials had attempted to cover up evidence of al-Qaeda involvement in the attack.
For instance, Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, had alleged that, "it was very clear to the individuals on the ground that this was an al-Qaeda-led event."
The Times claims, however, that Republicans had apparently confused local extremist groups such as Ansar al-Shariah with al-Qaeda. According to the Times, the only intelligence linking al-Qaeda with the assault came from an intercepted phone conversation between one of the attackers and a friend in another country with confirmed ties to al-Qaeda. But the friend of the attacker appeared surprised when he learned about the attack, suggesting that he had no prior knowledge of a plan to storm the US compound.
One of the local personalities that US officials identified as a prime suspect in the attack was Ahmed abu Khattala, a local militia leader. However, abu Khattala does not have any known links to al-Qaeda or links to other known international terrorist groups, which explains why he was not being closely monitored by officials at the CIA station in Benghazi.
The Times report says that abu Khattala denied allegations that he took part in the attack, although it is known that he is a major figure among local groups that participated in the attack. The report concluded that the main takeaway from the unfortunate incident is that, given the environment of strong anti-Western feelings in the Middle East and North Africa, members of groups that the US supported in conflicts could still become hostile to the US.
The report suggested that the lesson applies to the situation in Syria, where the US has contemplated providing assistance to rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar Assad.
Rico says it's a hard place to know who your friends are...

Metal memory from the Battle of the Bulge

Daniel Rubin has an article at Philly.com about a piece of World War Two finally come home:
The box arrived at Ted Nobles' house in Middletown, Delaware two days before Christmas, and, for the longest time, he let it sit there, unopened. "I was overwhelmed," he says. The sender was an older man in Fresno, California, a vet who had served in the same part of Europe during World War Two as Nobles' great-uncle Wally.
For more than a decade, Nobles had been researching the history of his family, including his maternal grandmother's only sibling, Lieutenant Wallace Lippincott Jr., a Chester, Pennsylvania-born Quaker from Swarthmore who, after graduating from the University of Delaware, went off to war, drove a tank into the Battle of the Bulge, and never returned.
Nobles' connection to his Uncle Wally was growing faint. His grandmother was now gone, and so was his mother. Once, maybe eleven years ago, Uncle Wally's widow Libby had called him out of the blue and talked about the man. But she spoke fast and he lost the notes he took, so all he remembers was they were married and didn't have time for kids before he shipped off to Europe, where he died in Luxembourg in 1945 at the age of 25.
The story of an unexpected Christmas gift begins there, in Luxembourg, a couple of years ago:
Norbert Morbe and his wife, Romaine, operate a small museum in the town of Berle dedicated to the soldiers who liberated their country. They run the place with their own money. Norbert, a farmer, is permitted to search the nearby woods with a metal detector for artifacts from the battle. That's where he unearthed a battered aluminum canteen.
Scratched into the metal was: Lt. Wal. Lippincott, 712 Tank Bn, a serial number, and the words Sauer Kraut.
Morbe wanted to return the canteen to its proper owner, but wasn't sure how to do so until he hosted Vern Schmidt and his wife. Schmidt, a Californian, had served in the war with the 90th Infantry Division. He said it would be his honor to get the canteen back into the right hands. And he did try, using the Internet in hopes of tracking down Lippincott's relatives. But he got nowhere. Until about two weeks ago. He was on the phone with a newspaper copy editor named Aaron Elson whose father had served in the same company as Lippincott, and who was collecting oral histories of the war. After a half-hour chat, Schmidt happened to mention the canteen. Elson knew of Lippincott and his story; the officer had joined the battalion two weeks before he was killed and had won a Silver Star for putting out a fire in his tank. For Memorial Day, Elson wrote about the German shelling that took Lippincott's life on 14 January 1945. Elson had even talked once to Nobles a decade before. Through Facebook, he made contact with Lippincott's grandnephew again. Which is how that package found its way to Nobles' home a week ago.
When Nobles finally opened the box, he removed some bubble wrap and a letter. He paused before holding the canteen. "I was moved to tears to think that, for sixty-plus years, it laid there. I don't know what, if anything, of him came home from the war. I'm 42. He was killed when my mother was a baby. I never knew him, just stories grandmother had told of him fighting and dying in the war." He decided to surprise his sister, Michelle Nobles Rutter, and her youngest son, Oliver Bowers, with the canteen for Christmas. On Wednesday, he drove to her house in Newark, Delaware and told the whole story: the Luxembourg man who found it, the World War Two vet from Fresno, Elson the chronicler. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house," he says. "It brings a sense a peace and a sort of closure to the story."
He wants to build a shadowbox for the canteen and display it with a photo of his great-uncle in his tank. That way family can visit it anytime and hold it.
He has one more wish: to find his great-aunt Libby, if she's still around. She'd be in her nineties now. Last he knew, her family still lived in Pennsylvania. About fifteen years ago, he determined she had made a gift to the University of Delaware in her first husband's name. Aunt Libby, where are you? he asked in a recent Facebook posting. "I think," he says, "she would be overjoyed."
Rico says it's good when history is not forgotten...

3D printing Is turning out to be risky

Kevin Kelleher has a Time article about new technology, maybe:
In a year when investors were willing to make speculative trades in emerging technologies, one of the hottest areas was (and continues to be) 3D printing. While recent rallies in the sector have yielded gains– with stocks rising several times over in a matter of months, if not weeks– the uncertainty of how 3D printing will evolve makes the high valuations that have resulted look risky.
Over the past several years, 3D printing has grown from an intriguing idea with seemingly limitless potential to a fledgling industry that each month seems to bring new real-world applications. The technology could bring dramatic changes to industries such as mass manufacturing, the delivery of consumer goods and the creation of artificial organs.
Already, General Electric is manufacturing new turbines with 3D printers, while New Balance is making custom-fit shoes and others are working on disposable panties and personalized sex toys (like the early web, 3D printing business models may be pioneered by the sex industry). Meanwhile, a DIY community reminiscent of the hobbyists who helped shape the PC is experimenting with other uses.
The promise of 3D printing isn’t just in how things are made or how goods are delivered, it’s in the ability to dramatically reduce costs of production. Already, 3D printers have made tweaking prototypes and customizing products much cheaper because the machinery involved doesn’t have to change, only the computer-aided design. In the era of 3D printing, designers may become as powerful and sought after as coders have on in web software.
All of this explains why investor are getting excited about the handful of companies that are making 3D printers for companies and hobbyists. Remember the old chestnut that the people who make money from gold rushes are the ones selling the tools? That thinking is driving a big rally in the shares of 3D printer companies. In fact, for investors, it’s as if a gold-rush mentality has seized them. The problem is that it’s still so early in the 3D printing industry that there have mostly been small companies in the space, many of which were bought up in a wave of acquisitions. That consolidation is creating a handful of leaders.
3D Systems, founded in 1986 by the inventor of the first rapid prototyping system, has bought 28 small companies since 2011, including Geomagic and Phenix Systems this year. Stratasys, another industry veteran founded in 1989, merged with Israel-based Objet in April of 2012 and bought MakerBot, a company focused on the consumer side of the industry, for four hundred million dollars in July of 2012.
For a few decades, 3D Systems and Stratasys focused on the market for designing prototypes quickly and cheaply. Even now, the bulk of 3D printers are used for such rapid prototyping in industrial design. The two companies have the biggest market caps: $9.5 billion for 3D Systems and $6.3 billion for Stratasys. But, as the more disruptive potential of 3D printing has emerged, they’ve been joined by younger, smaller companies that have gone public in the past two years.
Proto Labs, founded in 1999, went public in February of 2012 at $16 a share and now trades at $72 a share. ExOne, founded in 2005, went public a year later at $18 a share and now trades at $60 a share. And voxeljet, founded in Germany in 1999, debuted only two months ago at $13 a share and is trading around $39 a share.
The two veterans have performed the best, with Stratasys quadrupling in the past four years and 3D Systems rising eightfold in the same period. Neither rally is showing signs of flagging right now. The younger three, following strong first-day pops and early rallies, have been weakening on valuation concerns. With or without recent corrections, these five stocks are trading at irrationally high valuations. 3D Systems, the strongest performer of the group, has a trailing twelve-month price-to-earnings ratio of 199 and a price-to-sales ratio of 19. Stratasys is trading at fifteen times recent sales, Proto Labs at twelve times, ExOne at twenty times, and voxeljet at thirty times.
This month, following the Euromold Conference in Frankfurt, Germany, several Wall Street analysts began or amped up coverage of 3D printer companies. Barron’s Tech Trader Daily blog has been faithfully cataloging the reports, which have been more favorable to recommend 3D Systems and Stratsys over the smaller companies.
In short, 3D Systems is favored for its broad offerings, Stratasys for its move into the consumer market, and both for their long experience in the industry as well as their strong base of corporate customers. Both, however have grown mostly through acquisitions in the past couple of years, making organic growth harder to gauge.
Among the smaller players, analysts tend to favor ExOne for its (relatively) lower valuation, while voxeljet is still seen as overpriced given some concerns with customer loans.
Then there’s the question of how much of the speculation driving 3D printer stocks will turn in time to the steady, long-term profit growth the prices imply. Earlier speculative rallies in biotechnology and nanotechnology never panned out as hoped. Not all of the promise of 3D printing is fanciful, but it’s not clear which industries it will catch on in, and whether consumers will find it to be more than a novelty.
“We think people may be overestimating the 3D printing ramp in mass manufacturing over the next year but underestimating it over the next five years,” wrote Jeffries analyst Peter Misek in a report this month. That’s the catch with speculation: between the potential and the profit lies a valley of uncertainty. Crossing that valley is usually harder than it looks, and a lot of hope and money can be lost in the process.
Rico says he doesn't, and won't, own a share in any of these companies; good luck if you do. (And run the video, of the Chinese making body parts using 3D printers...)

29 December 2013

At the range

Rico says that, being California, it's not full auto, but still doubtless fun:

Novel ways to fake ancient goods

Gabrielle Jaffe the SmartPlanet correspondent in Beijing, who has been published in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times (of London), and currently a contributor at Time Out Beijing, holds degrees from the University of Oxford and City University of London's Department of Journalism, has a SmartPlanet article about fakery by the Chinese:
Strolling through Beijing's Panjiayuan Market, it's easy to imagine you've entered an antique treasure trove. Hawkers here sell blue and white porcelain, jade trinkets and Cultural Revolution-era memorabilia. If the prices seem too good to be true, that’s because they are. In the past, it was possible to pick up some rare finds at Panjiayuan; today almost all the "antiques" on sale were actually made just a few years, months, or weeks ago.
Fake Chinese antiques aren't only limited to Beijing's dirt markets; they have also appeared at auction houses and in museum collections worldwide. As the incomes of China's wealthy and middle classes rise, a mixture of national pride and get-rich-quick dreams have led to a surge in demand for antiques, and a boom in forgeries to meet that demand. In fact, the fake art market in China is so large that, according to Artron, a Chinese art research company, some quarter-million people are believed to be working in the industry.
While many are content to swindle first-time buyers with cheap knock-offs, at the high end of the market, highly organized professionals have developed complex networks of sellers and craftsmen who have honed their copying skills to the level where they can fool even the experts.
"I have a certain admiration for those making perfect copies. It's not something that can be embarked on without spending a lot of money and effort," says Lark Mason, a Chinese antiques expert who runs his own auction house and appears regularly on Antiques Roadshow. "You have to search out the right materials and have the skill set and tools to recreate the exact process of how the object was originally made." Mason, who specializes in Chinese furniture, explains the lengths master forgers must go to in order to copy antique chairs: "It's extremely difficult to replicate objects made in the seventeenth century using modern timber. They need to fell old-growth trees of a certain dimension, and take the moisture out the traditional way, instead of drying the wood in a commercial kiln. They must find carvers and joiners with the same skill level as imperial craftsmen. Then, they need to replicate the wear that comes with people sitting down with different amounts of force over a long period of time and the effects of exposure to light over several hundred years."
Creating quality fakes requires big investment but there are big profits to be made. Ningyi Zhang is a dealer who specializes in antique European clocks, a market which he says is devoid of fakes because it would cost more to fake these clocks than to buy them today. "By comparison, with Chinese porcelain, someone with a good fake can make fifteen times their investment," he explains.
Today over fourteen billion dollars is spent every year on art and antiques in China; that accounts for around a quarter of the market worldwide. The most prized Chinese antiques sell for ten of millions of dollars in China's domestic auctions.
"The fakes being made in China today are in response the strength of the Chinese economy," says Mason. "There were extraordinary numbers of fake Italian renaissance bronzes produced from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, because at that time the collecting market and economic power was centered in Europe and the US."
A growing number of Chinese people have the money to buy antiques, and like Westerners before them, they are, says Mason, "from a cultural perspective, from a aesthetic perspective, but also from nationalistic pride" choosing to purchase antiquities from their own heritage.
Some are also buying antiques as an investment, explains Lei Ming, an appraiser who works for several Chinese auction houses. "From the end of the 1990s, antique programs made people realize these items were worth a lot of money. The public started thinking of buying antiques as a way to get rich. The turning point was the record-breaking sale, for $28 million, of a Yuan dynasty blue and white jar at Christie's in London in 2005. People thought they could become millionaires overnight, and fakes have exploded since then."
As the market for antiques grows, the techniques used by the fakers are growing increasingly sophisticated. Where once they would simply fume scrolls with tea, today they are raising bugs and mice for the purpose of adding bite marks to pieces. Instead of relying on a quick dirt rub for faked pottery, they are digging several feet underground to find clay with a similar chemical make-up to the clay used in the time period when the original object was made. Reproduced ceramics are buried for months, even years, to give them the same appearance and smell as artifacts found in ancient tombs, while chemical baths are used to age bronzes.
Shapes are replicated near perfectly with the help of 3D scanning technologies. Intricate designs and seals (red marks made with printing stamps which appraisers have traditionally placed great importance on as a way to authenticate objects) can be copied by lasers with great precision.
But it's not just the fakers who are using technology. The authenticators are also harnessing high-tech tools in their fight against fakes. Some use radiocarbon, thermoluminescence, and other techniques to accurately date the antiques. Others concentrate on identifying signs of artificial aging. Guan Haisen, an appraiser who works at Beijing Antique City, imports the Ocean Optics LIBS system from the US, so he can use the portable spectrometer to test for chemicals used to simulate aging.
However, these technologies are not infallible guarantees. Forgers have been known to take bases from less valuable but genuinely old porcelain and reproduce better quality vases around it. Since most porcelain dating tests samples from the unglazed bottom, this method is used to dupe the testers.
"Nowadays, a lot of people are repairing valuable broken porcelain with a resin that's almost impossible to detect at first. It makes it look like it was never damaged, and a pristine piece is worth a lot more than a piece with even a hairline crack on it. It's only several months or years later when the resin begins to change color that you can detect it, but by then it's too late, the buyer has already bought it," says Zhang.
Enterprising, if dishonest, businessmen will continue to produce fakes as long as there is a market for them. But there are signs already that the Chinese public is beginning to grow wary. Classes teaching students how to spot forgeries have popped up all over the country and, while records continue to be set at auction, this year has also seen many lots gone unsold or buyers refusing to pay up because, on closer examination, they believe the item is a fake. "It takes time," says Mason, "but eventually the places that are abusing public trust are going to suffer the consequences."
Rico says that this is a good reason to not buy this stuff...

Because

Rico says the ladyfriend sometimes fails to understand why he does certain things for her (especially if it involves walking to the Apple Store in the rain), but, as the Raisuli (played by Sean Connery) explained in The Wind and the Lion: "Because, Mrs. Pedicaris, it pleases me to do so"...

History for the day

On 29 December 1940, during World War Two, Germany began dropping incendiary bombs on London.

Rico says we all know how well that turned out for the Germans...

28 December 2013

Napoleon, updated

Rico says his friend Kelley, the video game junkie, sends along this splendid example:

Geography for the day

Rico says his friend Dave, back in fine arch-perv form, sends this important lesson:

Not the Xmas spirit

Jason Notte has a Philly.com article about returns:
All of those gifts you bought at Black Friday sales in July and big events in October? Yeah, stores really do not want you to return those. At all.
Even with a shortened holiday shopping calendar, retailers aren't too keen on flexing their return policies and allowing you to take back dud gifts you bought at bargain prices while shopping early. This year, in some cases, that even includes items sold on Black Friday itself.
A Consumer Reports survey found that one in five Americans, or nearly fifty million, expected to return a Christmas gift in 2011. Roughly the same percentage of all adults were stuck with a bad gift the year before, though eighteen percent donated the offending present, fifteen percent re-gifted it and twenty-two percent either returned it or just threw it out.
That led to 9.6 percent of all holiday purchases being returned to retailers in 2011, up from 9.8 percent a year earlier and a scant 8.8 percent back in pre-recession 2007. In all, consumers brought back $58.5 billion in presents, which was a significant increase from the $39.7 billion in products they returned six years ago.
That made the entire retail world stamp its feet and cry like a child that didn't get what it wanted for Christmas. Under the guise of attacking "return fraud", which retailers say accounted for just over three billion dollars of all returns last year, nearly thirty percent of all retailers said they were changing their return policies for the 2013 holiday season.
That doesn't mean shoppers are completely out of luck, however. Macy's customers have unlimited return times on anything that's not furniture (three days) or a mattress (sixty days) and charges only its fifteen percent restocking fee for those two categories. Kohl's has an open-ended return for all items, while Costco's own open-return policy applies to everything but electronics, which get a generous ninety-day policy of their own. If you shopped at Buy.com, meanwhile, anything you bought after Thanksgiving doesn't have to be returned until mid-February.
Even with those lenient policies in place, there are a whole lot of retail Scrooges, Grinches, and Scut Farkuses out there who love nothing more than making you feel as if you've been mugged when you have the audacity to show up at their customer service counter. Even if you show up nice and early with your return, there's no guarantee that swapping your items will be a pleasant experience.
A survey by customer service software firm Zendesk indicates that December is the absolute worst month for customer service, with a special place in hell reserved for those who call a customer service agent on 29 December. The average time it will take for you to hear back from an agent? A full sixty-six hours, or more than two and a half days, later. And expect everybody else in the US to be calling at the same time you are. Saturdays are the worst day by call volume, while 6 pm is the absolute worst time to check in.
Unless you have a spare morning (Zendesk advises calling at 9 am) you're stuck until January. Unfortunately, that's also when a bunch of tight-fisted retailers are going to make you pay for waiting so long, despite your lack of choice in the matter. Just to let you know what you're up against, here are the five worst offenders when it comes to holiday returns. Good luck getting anything but a hearty laugh in exchange from these folks: 
SearsWe've mentioned on several occasions that Sears is a zombie retail chain that inhabits the earth only because there's no more room in retail hell. Stores haven't been updated since the 1990s, stock is disheveled and being sold off brand-by-brand, and management so distracted by finding buyers for its various parts that it shows almost no interest in getting its remaining customers to buy anything.
If you've stubbornly stuck by this company and did your Christmas shopping at its stores, don't expect it to make returns easy on you. Its multi-layered return policy comes with an entire table parsing out the difference between its thirty-day return products, sixty-day returns and ninety-day returns. Meanwhile, the holiday return policy that was supposed to simplify matters does no such thing:
Items purchased between 11/17/13 and 12/24/13 with a standard thirty-day return period, can be returned through 1/24/14. Items purchased between 11/17/13 and 12/24/2013 with a standard sixty-day return period can be returned up to sixty days from the date of purchase or by 1/24/14, whichever is longest.
Wonderful, except that this shortens Sears' return policy for major appliances and vacuums from sixty to thirty days, and excludes them from its extended holiday return period. It also doesn't mention the store's fifteen percent restocking fee for used items, nor its outright refusal to grant refunds.
Let Sears continue its miserly ways during this holiday return period. The chain's Christmas future isn't looking so bright. 
Toys R UsYou would think that the largest dedicated toy store chain in the US would have to have a pretty sweet return policy to stave off angry parents and encroaching competitors, right?
In some cases, that's true. Kids who got three of the same Monster High dolls from various relatives can take them back until 25 January 2014, thanks to the store's extended return deadline. If customers bought anything remotely electronic from the chain from 1 November 2013 onward, however, they only have until 9 January 2014 to bring them back. Yep, you have little more than two weeks after those presents are unwrapped to bring them back for any reason. Did you get an Xbox One for a kid with a library full of Playstation 3 games? No backward compatibility for you. Did you get a kid his or her second educational tablet of the season? Guess you'll have to brave those after-Christmas sales to reach the return counter, won't you.
Convenience? You got your convenience when Toys R Us let you buy that product on Thanksgiving night. Convenience ends once the giraffe gets his money. Don't expect Geoffrey to stick his neck out for you again. 
StaplesTheir slogan tends to draw a lot of customers who generally wouldn't pop in for reams of paper or toner. It also creates a separate set of rules that applies only to those newbies. You see, if you buy any office supplies at Staples, short of desks or office chairs, you have an unlimited amount of time to return them.
Unfortunately, the Staples folks don't like having the non-cubicle rabble around for too long and have decided that all electronics and furniture bought from 24 November 2013 onward need to be returned by 11 January 2014. Again, you have exactly two weeks to bring these items and get your non-buttoned shirt out of their store.
In fairness, some of those items that typically fall into the store's fourteen-day return policy, so the chain feels it's cutting you a break. It only stocks many of those more gifty items around this time of year, though, so the brevity of its return policy is only enhanced by the glut of typically non-Staples stuff at the front of the store and in its displays. 
Best BuyHow many times does this chain need to be booed for the terrible changes to its return policies in 2013? As many times as customers' voices will allow.
Best Buy made the Naughty column of Consumer Reports' Naughty and Nice List this year for requiring customers to present a photo ID with returns, even if they have a receipt, for storing your ID information in a database that tracks your returns, and warning customers with unfavorable return histories "that subsequent returns and exchanges will not be eligible for returns or exchanges for ninety days".
And this store wonders why people use it as a showroom for online competitors with less creepy return policies. The folks who run Best Buy seem aware that people don't feel the need to go into their stores and stroll amid employees less informed than an online ratings field to buy electronics, but they also provide little incentive to make a purchase there. After Best Buy had a horrid holiday season last year, it trimmed its return time for most customers from thirty to fifteen days.
To celebrate this year's holiday shopping season, it trimmed its holiday return policy by nine days from last year's mark. Now holiday customers who shopped from 3 November 2013 onward have to bring everything back by 15 January 2014 at the latest.
Electronics deadlines are tightened just about everywhere in retail, but when Costco gives you a ninety-day return window on those items, Target gives you thirty days (with the clock starting the day after Christmas) and both Amazon and Overstock taking back unopened electronics without a fee until 31 January 2013, Best Buy just keeps finding ways to maroon itself on the Island of Misfit Toys
Marshall's, T.J. Maxx, and Home GoodsYou spend more than a month subjecting us to your idiot commercials about "fancy Claus" and some Gifter character that's the even more superficial version of the Priceline Negotiator, only to give your shoppers less than two weeks to return items? TJX, you're just not good at this.
If you're one of the customers unfortunate enough to have bought an item from any of the stores in this company from 20 October 2013 to 8 December 2013, you have until 7 January 2014 to bring it back. It doesn't care what your holiday plans are, or where you'll be for New Year's. It, quite frankly, seems to hope you'll be a whole lot of elsewhere so it can hold on to the cash you paid for overstocked or slightly defective name-brand items.
It's a cheap move by a chain that excels at cheapness, but it has one major, redeeming loophole. If you're one of those shoppers who didn't start until well into December, the store's thirty-day return policy still applies. That means the most lenient policies are reserved for the procrastinators who picked over stores just before Christmas and put off some of their biggest shopping until the last minute.
If you're part of that slow-but-savvy crowd, congratulations: you don't have anything to worry about until late January. If you're not, however, prepare to stand in line at the returns desk with all of the other early birds during the next week or so.
Rico says he, fortunately, won't be returning anything to these weasels...

Herb garden

Rico says he knows it's hardly the spirit of the holidays, but he couldn't resist:

Rico apologizes for this Herb's premature burial, but the guy is 78...

A serial killer

A San Francisco columnist, famous for his 'three-dot' journalism...

A film director

History for the day

On 28 December 1981, Elizabeth Jordan Carr, the first American test-tube baby, was born in Norfolk, Virginia.

27 December 2013

Bombing, and deservedly so


Dave McNary has a Variety article about 47 Ronin:
Universal Pictures has acknowledged that 47 Ronin is a loser, disclosing that it’s taken the ususual step of writing down some if its $175 million cost prior to the current quarter. The samurai tentpole, starring Keanu Reeves (top photo, at left), opened on Christmas Day and is projected to earn under twenty million dollars through Sunday: the worst debut for a $150 million-plus movie in 2013. The film finished sixth on Thursday with a meager $3.4 million.
Internationally, 47 Ronin has opened in fourteen territories for a total of ten million dollars through Wednesday. Though the film’s opening two weeks ago in Japan was dire, it finished first in its Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan openings.
Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp., issued a statement confirming the writedown, but did not disclose its size. “Universal Pictures regularly evaluates its film slate for potential adjustment,” the studio said. “In the case of 47 Ronin, we adjusted film costs in previous quarters and, as a result, our financial performance will not be negatively impacted this quarter by its theatrical performance.”
Universal saw solid performances this year from Fast and Furious 6 and Despicable Me 2. It’s finishing third in overall US box office with more than $1.4 billion in grosses, trailing Warner Bros. and Disney. Earlier this year, Disney took a writedown on The Lone Ranger after losing nearly two hundred million dollars on the Johnny Depp western.
Rico says that, in normal industries, heads would roll for losses like this... (And if it ends Keanu Reeves' career, so much the better.)

Australian sharks now using Twitter

Pete Thomas has a Grind.tv article about an unusual use for technology:
Large sharks off Western Australia are now doing their part to keep surfers and swimmers safe–by sending tweets warning of their presence. Scientists have fitted more than three hundred sharks, many of them great whites, with transmitters that automatically issue warnings to the Surf Life Saving Western Australia’s Twitter feed when the tagged sharks approach within a kilometer of the coast’s popular beaches.
For example, a tweet sent early Saturday in Australia reads: Fisheries advise: tagged Bronze whaler shark detected at Garden Island (north end) receiver at 06:0700 AM on 27-Dec-2013.
The Twitter feed has more than fourteen thousand followers and the real-time warnings, it’s hoped, will help people make more informed decisions when choosing to venture into the ocean.
Chris Peck, from SLSWA, told Sky News that this system will reach beachgoers before alerts issued via traditional media, such as radio and newspapers. “You might not have got some information until the following day, in which case the hazard has long gone and the information might not be relevant,” Peck said. “Now it’s instant information and people don’t have an excuse to say we’re not getting the information, it’s about whether you are searching for it and finding it.”
Six people have been killed by sharks off Western Australia in the past two years. The latest victim, Chris Boyd, 35, was fatally bitten while surfing in November of 2013.
The government has been under tremendous pressure to make the waters safer and the tweeting program comes after a decision to allow professional hunters to kill large sharks sighted in certain areas.
Premier Colin Barnett recently told reporters: “The safety of human life, the safety of beach goers using our marine environment, must come first.”
The shark-culling effort, however, has been highly criticized as a program that will only lend a perception that the waters are safer after a shark or several sharks are removed.
So far, nobody has tweeted in opposition to shark’s using Twitter to announce their arrival. To be sure, it seems like the more rational of the two plans.
Rico wonders what's next? Rats using GPS?

Bionic leg allows amputee to walk

Time has a video about advances in prosthetics:
Researchers have come up with an artificial leg that reads brain signals. The technology, which has been hailed as a groundbreaking medical advance, is currently in the testing phase.
Rico says this is the kind of thing he worked on (without this kind of success, alas), once upon at time, at Stanford...
 

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