Friday, September 26, 2008

What Bernanke and Paulson Can Learn From Sweden's Financial Crash

"A banking system in crisis after the collapse of a housing bubble. An economy hemorrhaging jobs. A market-oriented government struggling to stem the panic. Sound familiar?

"It does to Sweden. The country was so far in the hole in 1992 — after years of imprudent regulation, short-sighted economic policy and the end of its property boom — that its banking system was, for all practical purposes, insolvent."

I came across this article by Carter Dougherty in the New York Times on Tuesday, and found it very interesting.

But before we go on to the rest of the article:

Last night, I attended an debate at Washington State University. One of the speakers in The Great Election Debate was writer and activist Cliff Kincaid, who said more than once that the 700 billion-dollar plan proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Fed Chairmen Ben Bernanke and the Bush White House is not a bailout , but socialism.

Socialism is widely understood to mean state or collective ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, including banks.

I grew up in a country that some have called labeled a socialist democracy. In Singapore, the government does own some banks and the like, including a very successful investment company, called Temasek Holdings. With a multinational staff of more than 300 people, it manages a portfolio of about S$185 billion, or more than US$127 billion, focused primarily in Asia. It is an active shareholder and investor in such sectors as banking & financial services, real estate, transportation & logistics, infrastructure, telecommunications & media, bioscience & healthcare, education, consumer & lifestyle, engineering & technology, as well as energy & resources. In 2008, The Economist reported that Morgan Stanley had estimated the fund's assets at US$159.2 billion. Late last year Temasek threw a 5 billion-dollar lifeline to Merrill Lynch.

All right - back to the NYT aritcle. Here's where the Swedish experience does include socialist principles.

Dougherty writes:

"Sweden did not just bail out its financial institutions by having the government take over the bad debts. It extracted pounds of flesh from bank shareholders before writing checks. Banks had to write down losses and issue warrants to the government.

"That strategy held banks responsible and turned the government into an owner. When distressed assets were sold, the profits flowed to taxpayers, and the government was able to recoup more money later by selling its shares in the companies as well.

'“If I go into a bank,” said Bo Lundgren, who was Sweden’s finance minister at the time, “I’d rather get equity so that there is some upside for the taxpayer.”

"Sweden spent 4 percent of its gross domestic product, or 65 billion kronor, the equivalent of $11.7 billion at the time, or $18.3 billion in today’s dollars, to rescue ailing banks. That is slightly less, proportionate to the national economy, than the $700 billion, or roughly 5 percent of gross domestic product, that the Bush administration estimates its own move will cost in the United States.

"But the final cost to Sweden ended up being less than 2 percent of its G.D.P. Some officials say they believe it was closer to zero, depending on how certain rates of return are calculated.

"The tumultuous events of the last few weeks have produced a lot of tight-lipped nods in Stockholm. Mr. Lundgren even made the rounds in New York in early September, explaining what the country did in the early 1990s.

"A few American commentators have proposed that the United States government extract equity from banks as a price for their rescue. But it does not seem to be under serious consideration yet in the Bush administration or Congress.

"The reason is not quite clear. The government has already swapped its sovereign guarantee for equity in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance institutions, and the American International Group, the global insurance giant.

"Putting taxpayers on the hook without anything in return could be a mistake, said Urban Backstrom, a senior Swedish finance ministry official at the time. “The public will not support a plan if you leave the former shareholders with anything,” he said.

"The Swedish crisis had strikingly similar origins to the American one, and its neighbors, Norway and Finland, were hobbled to the point of needing a government bailout to escape the morass as well.

"Financial deregulation in the 1980s fed a frenzy of real estate lending by Sweden’s banks, which did not worry enough about whether the value of their collateral might evaporate in tougher times.

"Property prices imploded. The bubble deflated fast in 1991 and 1992. A vain effort to defend Sweden’s currency, the krona, caused overnight interest rates to spike at one point to 500 percent. The Swedish economy contracted for two consecutive years after a long expansion, and unemployment, at 3 percent in 1990, quadrupled in three years.

"After a series of bank failures and ad hoc solutions, the moment of truth arrived in September 1992, when the government of Prime Minister Carl Bildt decided it was time to clear the decks.

"Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the opposition center-left, Mr. Bildt’s conservative government announced that the Swedish state would guarantee all bank deposits and creditors of the nation’s 114 banks. Sweden formed a new agency to supervise institutions that needed recapitalization, and another that sold off the assets, mainly real estate, that the banks held as collateral.

"Sweden told its banks to write down their losses promptly before coming to the state for recapitalization. Facing its own problem later in the decade, Japan made the mistake of dragging this process out, delaying a solution for years.

"Then came the imperative to bleed shareholders first. Mr. Lundgren recalls a conversation with Peter Wallenberg, at the time chairman of SEB, Sweden’s largest bank. Mr. Wallenberg, the scion of the country’s most famous family and steward of large chunks of its economy, heard that there would be no sacred cows.

"The Wallenbergs turned around and arranged a recapitalization on their own, obviating the need for a bailout. SEB turned a profit the following year, 1993.

“For every krona we put into the bank, we wanted the same influence,” Mr. Lundgren said. “That ensured that we did not have to go into certain banks at all.”

"By the end of the crisis, the Swedish government had seized a vast portion of the banking sector, and the agency had mostly fulfilled its hard-nosed mandate to drain share capital before injecting cash. When markets stabilized, the Swedish state then reaped the benefits by taking the banks public again.

"More money may yet come into official coffers. The government still owns 19.9 percent of Nordea, a Stockholm bank that was fully nationalized and is now a highly regarded giant in Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea region.

"The politics of Sweden’s crisis management were similarly tough-minded, though much quieter.

"Soon after the plan was announced, the Swedish government found that international confidence returned more quickly than expected, easing pressure on its currency and bringing money back into the country. The center-left opposition, while wary that the government might yet let the banks off the hook, made its points about penalizing shareholders privately.

'“The only thing that held back an avalanche was the hope that the system was holding,” said Leif Pagrotzky, a senior member of the opposition at the time. “In public we stuck together 100 percent, but we fought behind the scenes.”'

Here's a link to Dougherty's article in the New York Times.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Biden, McCain, Obama, Palin....What The Tickets Reveal

No partisan red meat offered in this post....this is the vegetarian option. (Hence, the listing of names in alphabetical order.)

I really enjoyed two opinion pieces in the Washington Post this weekend. We all keep hearing how the tickets and candidates differ, but in these politically charged weeks, it's nice to take a step back and examine what the Democratic and Republican tickets have in common.

First, David Ignatius writes:

"There's something lovable about the way this year's never-ending political campaign has turned out.

"We now have two presidential tickets that display the American rainbow in all its eccentric colors. It's as raw and real, and as unlikely, as the nation itself: On one side a suave, aloof African American, twinned with a loquacious Catholic whose manner evokes his blue-collar roots; on the other, a certified war hero paired with a young woman from Alaska who looks like the heroine of a country music song and earns her reputation both as a beauty-contest charmer and a political "barracuda."

"Best of all, these four people are each, in different ways, American rebels. They have all made their way challenging conventional wisdom, telling off the know-it-alls, making a place for themselves and their ideas. They all retained their individuality in a political culture that tends to grind down candidates until they are palpable phonies. That didn't happen with these four -- whatever you think of them, they are who they claim to be.

"Stand back a minute and consider what this often shrill and partisan campaign process has produced: The two parties converged toward the center, selecting in Barack Obama and John McCain presidential candidates who promised they would work across party lines to break the gridlock in Washington. The dividers lost.

The victors were a change agent and a maverick. And each of them picked someone who shared his instinct to challenge the status quo.

"It's a refreshingly upside-down composite picture: The African American candidate is the most conventional of the lot, with his Columbia-Harvard pedigree and his elegant Princeton-Harvard wife and their picture-perfect children. It's the gal from Alaska, Sarah Palin, who reminds us of how messy the real world is, with her special-needs child passed from hand to hand, her pregnant teenage daughter and the hockey-star boyfriend/father who looks, weirdly, like he just won the lottery.

"And old John McCain, eyes flashing, tighter than a tick, just like old Gramps when he's about to take a verbal shot at someone he thinks is a jerk. And motor-mouth Joe Biden, who can't stop saying what he thinks, even if it's to applaud how well his rival, Palin, did in cutting up Obama during her acceptance speech.

"I'm sorry, but this is an American family portrait I like."

Here's the full piece, A Tapestry In Two Tickets.

Next, Andrew J. Cherlin makes the observation that despite the candidates' attempts to convince Americans that their families were just like ours, they were undone by a 21st-century reality: There is no typical family anymore.

"In fact, the diversity of American households was the unspoken lesson of both conventions, as four strikingly different kinds of families came into view. First, the Obamas. The Democratic nominee's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, spoke to the Denver crowd, highlighting his biracial family background, dominated by an often single mother and a largely absent father. Obama's wife Michelle also took a powerful turn at the podium, focusing on her husband's biography but also playing up her own high-powered career and modest roots. The Bidens were introduced to a national audience that week as well, a stepfamily formed after the tragic death of the senator's first wife. With the McCains, we see another stepfamily, formed this time after the senator's divorce. Their family also includes Bridget, a daughter adopted from Bangladesh. And the Palins bring to the stage two working parents with five children, including a pregnant teenager and an infant with Down syndrome."

"(N)ever has such an extraordinary range of family histories been center stage."

Here's the Washington Post article.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Really, What DOES a Vice President Do Anyway?

Vice-Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin in July:

From government classes in high school, most of us remember that the only responsibilities assigned to the Vice-President by the U.S. Constitution are:

a) To assume the "powers and duties" of the presidency, should the president die or become disabled while in office; and

b) To preside over the Senate, casting tie-breaker votes in the body when needed.

Regarding a): thirteen vice presidents have gone on to become president, eight because of the death of a president. (The rest were elected to the office.)

So what else does the No. 2 have to do?

Here's some wisdom from someone who ought to know.

Former senator, former vice president, and, of course, the first presidential candidate to select a woman as his running mate, Walter Mondale was quoted in the New York Times on Wednesday:

Whether Republicans or Democrats win in November, “there will be messes on the Hill. And that’s what I did a lot of as vice president,’’ he said. “I spent a lot of time cleaning up messes on the Hill.’’

The second is to act as an early-warning radar for brewing problems – which means having deep connections in the government, with people honest enough to say things they might not say to the president. Ms. Palin, he said, “seems like a lovely person’’ but is so detached from Washington that she is unlikely to serve in that role.

The third, he said, is to “extend the president’s power abroad.’’ When he was vice president to Jimmy Carter, he noted, he spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and dealing with the Chinese. (Under President Clinton, he came back to government to serve as ambassador to Japan, and he played a significant behind-the-scenes role managing the first nuclear crisis with North Korea, in 1994.)

Then there’s the unglamorous part of the job, he said. “Remember, the vice president is the only other officer of the government without a bureaucratic constituency. You have to be able to hear out all sides, and know how what you’re hearing is being affected’’ as members of the cabinet maneuver for more budget, or more authority. Full article.

Clearly, one role all modern vice-presidential candidates must play is in campaigning. In Governor Palin's case, she is helping to motivate the right wing of her party. The fervent applause given after her speech to the Republican National Convention shows that she is well primed for this particular task.

Here are some interesting bits about Vice-Presidents:

Nine succeeded to the Presidency:

John Tyler became President when William Harrison died. Chose not to seek full term.
Millard Fillmore became President when Zachary Taylor died. Sought the Whig nomination in 1852, but lost to Winfield Scott. Four years later, ran and lost as the candidate of the American and Whig Parties.
Andrew Johnson became President when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Sought the Democratic nomination in 1868, but was unsuccessful.
Chester A. Arthur became President when James Garfield was assassinated. Sought a full term, but was not re-nominated.
Theodore Roosevelt became President when William McKinley was assassinated; then was elected to full term. Did not seek re-election. Four years after leaving office, ran again and lost.
Calvin Coolidge became President when Warren Harding died; then was elected to full term. Did not seek re-election.
Harry S. Truman became President when Franklin D. Roosevelt died; then was elected to full term.
Lyndon B. Johnson became President when John F. Kennedy was assassinated; then was elected to full term. Did not seek re-election.
Gerald Ford became President when Richard Nixon resigned; then lost election to full term.

Four sitting Vice Presidents were elected President:

John Adams (1789–1797) was elected President in 1796.
Thomas Jefferson (1797–1801) was elected President in 1800.
Martin Van Buren (1833–1837) was elected President in 1836.
George H. W. Bush (1981–1989) was elected President in 1988.

Previous positions:
Every vice president as of 2008 except John Adams, Chester A. Arthur, Henry A. Wallace and Garret Hobart has served as a congressman, senator, or governor.

There's more Veep trivia in this article.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remember Gorbachev? He Weighs in on Georgia

Today the New York Times has an op-ed piece on the crisis in South Ossetia, from none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, last head of state of the USSR.

"Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction."

A controversial statement, to be sure, yet Gorbachev is still scheduled to receive the 2008 Liberty Medal next month. Said the president of the National Constitution Center: "Awarding the Liberty Medal should not be construed as an endorsement by the center of President Gorbachev's views on the Russia-Georgia conflict."

The former Soviet leader continues:

"It is still not quite clear whether the West was aware of Mr. Saakashvili’s plans to invade South Ossetia, and this is a serious matter. What is clear is that Western assistance in training Georgian troops and shipping large supplies of arms had been pushing the region toward war rather than peace.

"If this military misadventure was a surprise for the Georgian leader’s foreign patrons, so much the worse. It looks like a classic wag-the-dog story.

"Mr. Saakashvili had been lavished with praise for being a staunch American ally and a real democrat — and for helping out in Iraq. Now America’s friend has wrought disorder, and all of us — the Europeans and, most important, the region’s innocent civilians — must pick up the pieces.

"Those who rush to judgment on what’s happening in the Caucasus, or those who seek influence there, should first have at least some idea of this region’s complexities. The Ossetians live both in Georgia and in Russia. The region is a patchwork of ethnic groups living in close proximity. Therefore, all talk of “this is our land,” “we are liberating our land,” is meaningless. We must think about the people who live on the land.

"The problems of the Caucasus region cannot be solved by force. That has been tried more than once in the past two decades, and it has always boomeranged.

"What is needed is a legally binding agreement not to use force. Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly refused to sign such an agreement, for reasons that have now become abundantly clear.

"The West would be wise to help achieve such an agreement now. If, instead, it chooses to blame Russia and re-arm Georgia, as American officials are suggesting, a new crisis will be inevitable. In that case, expect the worst."

Read Gorbachev's full essay here.

And this morning we have news of a deal to build a U-S missile defense base on Polish soil, which of course is angering Russia. It's hard to see the timing as anything other than deliberate.

Among the voices denouncing Moscow's occupation is a Georgian who once had a prominent seat in the Kremlin. In the 1980s, Eduard Shevardnadze served as the foreign minister for the Soviet Union. His comments aired on NPR's Morning Edition today.

"For 200 years, we were a Russian colony," he said. "When one gets accustomed to controlling another country, it can be difficult to see that country become independent. Eventually, some people reappear who want to re-create the old order."

Several years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Shevardnadze became president of an independent Georgia. But in 2003, he was overthrown by opposition protests led by Georgia's current president, Mikhail Saakashvili.

Shevardnadze said Saakashvili was unwise to try to reclaim the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia by force earlier this month.

But the 80-year-old former Soviet diplomat also had some advice for the current residents of the Kremlin, who have made no secret of their desire to see Saakashvili overthrown.

The more Russia squeezes Saakashvili, Shevardnadze said, the more his authority will grow. That, he added, is the nature of Georgians.

Here's the full story on NPR.)

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman points fingers all over the place:

"If the conflict in Georgia were an Olympic event, the gold medal for brutish stupidity would go to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. The silver medal for bone-headed recklessness would go to Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and the bronze medal for rank short-sightedness would go to the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams."

Read the column here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

(The Other) Georgia on Our Minds

Not knowing anyone from Georgia or of Georgian descent, I was surprised to learn that this country of 4.4 milliion in the Caucusus has a devout fan base in the US.

Ilan Greenberg: "(I)t is hard to overstate the level of passion felt by Americans in thrall with Georgia. Love for Georgia is uncompromising and consuming. To be American and reside in Georgia is to be locked in an endless meta-conversation about being American and residing in Georgia: how Georgian culture enriches, how Georgian politics fascinate, how Georgian cuisine nourishes."

I can only imagine what these Georgia boosters felt when they saw pictures like this.

In spite of the media-heavy Olympics, images of Russian tanks in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia have made big news since forces on both sides engaged on the 7th of August. There have also been clashes in another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Russia also launched attacks on other parts of Georgia. (Russia Invades Georgia While the West Watches. How Did It Come to This?)

Barely a day after the conflict began, President Bush sat a few seats away from Vladimir Putin at the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. But there was no outward sign of tension between the two leaders. Leaning over, Bush and the Russian prime minister engaged in the sort of chummy socializing we've seen between them since their first meeting in the summer of 2001. Back then, Bush said he had looked Vladimir Putin in the eye, gotten ``a sense of his soul'' and found the Russian leader to be ``very straightforward and trustworthy.'' That fall, Putin headed to Crawford, Texas, where the two world leaders again gave all appearances of being the best of buddies.

"The more I get to know President Putin, the more I get to see his heart and soul ...the more I know we can work together in a positive way." - Bush, 2001

But how his expression changed after a few days of continued fighting in South Ossetia.

"Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century." - Bush, 2008

Bush is well known for standing by his bosom buddies no matter what their transgressions (Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, for example.) Yet he was scolding his pal publicly. Is this another sign of America's abiding affection for the former Soviet republic that shares a name with the Peach State? (Why the same name?)

Here's more of Ilan Greenberg's piece in Slate.

"Georgia is something like the Italy of the former Soviet Union, where mothers are considered saints and histrionic displays of emotion are roundly approved, where traffic police refuse to write tickets to pregnant women and grown men worship fresh produce. Television viewers getting their first taste of Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili (Misha to everyone in Georgia), this week are not wrong to detect a surprising emotionalism, volatility, and American-style openness from a leader of a country sandwiched between Turkey and Russia. It is not a stretch to say [President Mikhail] Saakashvili's qualities are emblematic of the nation as a whole.

"I got to know Georgia—and Saakashvili—when I profiled him for the New York Times Magazine. For almost two months I shadowed Misha. In Slovakia for a regional summit, walking next to Saakashvili along Bratislava's cordoned streets, the Georgian head of state hooked his arm on my elbow and offered to trade gossip about his senior staff. In Tbilisi, Saakashvili gave me carte blanche access, not once ordering me out of his office. In a region where governments routinely conflate tribe with nation, Saakashvili pointedly switched languages to inclusively address ethnic minorities. One evening I answered my cell phone to hear the cackling voice of the then 37-year-old president, who called to tease that his evening was more interesting than mine. I had been crank-called by the president. Stockholm Syndrome was inevitable.

"Georgia's charm doesn't end with Saakashvili. Few sights are as beguiling as barrel-chested Georgian men greeting each other on the street with the traditional cheek kisses. Georgian toasting is a triumph of rhetorical theatrics. Then there is Georgian hospitality. The mother of a friend I had visited shined my shoes while nobody was looking. Before arriving in Tbilisi, I called a Georgian friend to ask if I could stay in her three-room apartment "for maybe 10 days." I stayed three months.

"My friend's boyfriend was an important presidential adviser with a late-night pizza addiction. Receiving delivery was an ordeal: The delivery man, schooled in the pre-Rose Revolution tradition of refusing payment from high government officials, would knock on the door, drop the pies, and try to make a run for it. The adviser, dedicated to ending a culture of corruption, usually was able to head him off, money clutched in his fist.

"So there are many reasons to like Georgia. But for the Americans trafficking in Georgia-thrall, enthusiasm for the country of 4.8 million can be extreme. In Tbilisi, the picturesque Georgian capital that is now a precarious 40 miles from the Russian occupation zone, I met American expats—veterans of any number of other-country postings—who quit their jobs rather than accept a new country. Of course, at the government level, assiduous courting of Americans is all part of the plan. Saakashvili has been reaching out to American politicians, especially Republican ones, since he took office. When I spent time with the president, he was obsessive about influencing American opinion-makers in the press, and his chief of staff complained to me he was spending more time dictating responses to articles in American newspapers than governing Georgia.

"For Westerners, Georgian cultural idiosyncrasies can be intoxicating. But for Russians, Georgia is also innerving. The two peoples are badly handcuffed. Russian women falling for Georgian men is a stereotype in both countries, and ethnic Georgians populate the upper reaches of Russian pop culture as celebrated singers and actors. Long before the Russian army rolled into Gori, Russian tourists streamed into the country to enjoy its warm Black Sea coast and to hike its soaring green mountains.

The signature traits of Georgian identity—a romantic, somewhat lugubrious sense of national fate; male machismo; the Orthodox Church; even good toast-making—are claimed by Russians. The two countries rarely resist tormenting each other, and if this week has underscored the lack of equality between the two in hard power, there is an equanimity in national psyche. Both peoples find the cultural aspirations of the other to be intolerable.

American fans of Georgia, a good number of them anyway, have located a far-away dreamscape, a colorful Caucasian people kissing each other on the cheeks and speaking a strange, unique language in a fairy-tale land, where poor men will sell the shirts off their backs to buy a woman dinner. Ironically, a lot of Russians look south and see something similar. Too much love is never a good thing."

Here are more articles analyzing the situation in Georgia:

New York Times: U.S. Watched as a Squabble Turned Into a Showdown

Slate: After The Counterrevolution: Georgia is yet another country where Washington declared "mission accomplished" too soon.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Stretch Your Gas Dollar with “Hypermiling”

You know how those EPA fuel economy estimates usually oversell? Well, some people manage to exceed those values, just by modifying their driving habits.

The practice is called hypermiling.

“The terms "hypermiler" and "hypermiling" originated in the online communities of Clean MPG, which is devoted to raising fuel economy and lowering emissions,” writes Nate Chapnick in

“The actual practice of hypermiling likely dates back to World War II gas rationing; in fact, during the fuel crisis of the 1970s, Reader's Digest published a guide for consumers that included many techniques now commonly used in hypermiling. Today, however, hypermilers are not only more serious about their craft; they also rely heavily on new technology to achieve such astounding fuel economy.”

How astounding?

Try 52 miles per gallon with a Toyota Corolla.

Try 75.6 miles per gallon with a 2001 Honda Insight. (Source)

Bear in mind the typical mileage you get from these cars: according to the US Department of Energy, the 2008 Corolla’s fuel economy is 29 mpg, city and highway combined, and the 2001 Insight is rated 48 mpg in the city, 60 on the highway. (Source:

So how do we squeeze that sort of mileage out of a gallon of gas?

Whether we choose to follow them or not, most of use know the basic hypermiling techniques.

Maintaining an efficient speed is an important factor in fuel efficiency. The optimum speed varies with the type of vehicle, although it is usually reported to be in the range of 35 to 55 mph. For instance a 2004 Chevrolet Impala had an optimum at 42 mph, and was within 15% of that from 29 to 57 mph. (Source)We know that the faster we drive, the lower the fuel efficiency – yet how often do you drive at the speed limit, only to be passed by vehicle after vehicle roaring by at 75 mph, drivers flashing you surly looks? (They ought to look surly – think about how much extra gas they’re burning!)

The national speed limit could drop back down to 55 mph, though. Senator John Warner (R-Virginia) asked Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to look into what speed limit would provide optimum gasoline efficiency given current technology. He said he wants to know if the administration might support efforts in Congress to require a lower speed limit. (more)

Here's a rule of thumb: If you're in a drive-through restaurant/business line or waiting for someone and you'll be parked and sitting for 10 seconds or longer... turn off your car's engine. Why?? For every two minutes a car is idling, it uses about the same amount of fuel it takes to go about one mile. Today's cars use electronic fuel injectors, which rigorously control the amount of gas delivered to the engine when you hit the ignition. As a result, virtually no fuel is wasted during startup, and only a thimbleful is burned as the car roars to life.

Research indicates that the average person idles their car five to 10 minutes a day. People usually idle their cars more in the winter than in the summer. But even in winter, you don't need to let your car sit and idle for five minutes to "warm it up" when 30 seconds will do just fine. (More)


Accelerate slowly over the longest possible distance. The slower you accelerate, the more you extend it over time and the less gas you use.

Go easy on the brakes - you used gas to move, but when you brake you're turning that motion (and the money spent on the gas) - into heat. Therefore, the more you move without braking, the less energy wasted.

MORE TIPS from the article on hypermiling. Note that some of the techniques could compromise safety.

Overinflate tires
Larry Singleton, a systems analyst in Phoenix and the owner of a 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid, overinflates his tires by about 15-20 pounds. "I consider it safe because most of my driving is around town and under 50 miles per hour," said Singleton. According to Singleton, putting less rubber on the road gives him an edge in beating the EPA's rating by decreasing rolling resistance. However, such a practice could lead to uneven tire wear or worse, a loss of vehicle control.

Watch the real-time mileage display
Some vehicles are equipped with readouts that compute your real-time fuel use on a miles-per-gallon basis. Singleton watches the onboard display and adjusts his throttle inputs based on the readout to maximize his fuel economy.

Pay attention to wind conditions
James Cullen, a retired locomotive engineer and Toyota Prius owner, has found that his fuel mileage is significantly impacted by favorable wind conditions. "On long highway rides, having a tailwind has made a big difference in my fuel economy." If you know it's a windy day and you don't have to take that trip, then don't," said Cullen.

Place cardboard over the radiator
Chuck Thomas said that a cold engine reduces fuel-efficiency. How can you warm up the engine faster? Office Depot's silver-colored cardboard. Yes, that's right, cardboard. Thomas covers his radiator with cardboard to block the wind, thus retaining heat and keeping the engine running at a warmer temperature. Cautioning about the risk of overheating, Thomas said, "I'll take off the piece of cardboard if I know that I'll be driving a long distance, say 100 miles, but it's fine for my daily commute."

Of course, a cold engine's thermostat already remains closed until the engine is warm, so the cardboard isn't necessarily really helping it warm up faster but it will make the car's engine run at a higher operating temperature. In cold climates this might promote better fuel economy.

Minimize stoplights and stop signs on your route
Before leaving for an unfamiliar location, James Cullen maps out his route to ensure that his pathway has the fewest stops. "Every time you stop and start, you waste fuel. So it's easy to go on the Internet and map out a route with fewer stoplights and stop signs," said Cullen. If you can't avoid the stoplights, determine the optimal speed for the timing of the stoplights. "Taking this small step has a marked effect on your fuel economy," said Thomas.

Ride the ridge
Riding along the painted white line used to be reserved for road bikers looking for a surface with less friction. Friction decreases your fuel economy by adding drag to the vehicle. However, hypermilers now use this white line to increase their fuel economy, a tactic that's especially useful in the rain when puddles form in the grooves of the road, which significantly increases rolling resistance.

Run without the A/C and keep windows closed
This tip could have you sweating bullets, but just think about all the water weight you'll lose. Alison McKellar of DeLand, Florida, recently purchased a new Prius. McKellar quickly became interested in conserving fuel and said she "found the strategy on a site for Prius owners. I realize substantial fuel economy gains by not running the A/C, so before I head out for a trip, I make sure to bring plenty of ice water to stay hydrated," said McKellar.

Baby the brakes while being "surroundings aware"
With this technique, hypermilers treat stop signs as though they are yield signs — and slowly glide through. Cullen, a Prius owner, said, "If I see no one is there [at the stop sign], then I just roll through it, which keeps the car in electric mode." This technique is especially important for non-hybrid hypermilers, whose vehicles do not feature regenerative braking, a technology that recharges the hybrid's battery, which runs the electric motor.

Driving as if you don't have brakes requires constant anticipation and planning, dubbed "surroundings aware," which hypermiler advocates say promotes defensive driving. But the technique may sometimes require hypermilers to tailgate or take corners at speeds that aren't truly safe, all in the hopes of never touching their brake pedals.

Keep up with maintenance
Even non-hypermilers will find this tactic easy to follow. Keeping your vehicle properly maintained by changing the air filter and oil according to the manufacturer's scheduled tune-ups will have a positive effect on your fuel economy. Hypermilers also recommend regular balancing and aligning of your tires.

Get rid of what you don't need
Hypermilers always travel with the bare essentials. Chuck Thomas said that he never "leaves junk that I don't need in the trunk." He also recommends removing the roof rack when not in use, as it creates unnecessary drag on your vehicle. "The more drag on your vehicle and the heavier it is, the worse mileage you'll get," according to Thomas.

"Potential parking" and "face-out"
According to Wayne Gerdes, winner of the 2006 Hybridfest MPG Challenge, "Park at the highest spot in the parking lot and face out." This technique allows you to exit by rolling forward in neutral without turning on the engine, thereby saving gas. The technique does away with the backing up and braking required by nose-in parking, while also reducing the time the engine runs. This strategy is easiest to use where there's at least one corner of the lot without other parked cars.

"Pulse and glide"
This is perhaps the most complicated technique employed by hypermilers. On a Prius, the optimal speed for this tactic is around 30-40 mph, said Prius owner Cullen. The first step in the pulse-and-glide technique is to pulse, which is to accelerate the vehicle to around 30 or 40 mph. In the Prius, once the speed has reached 40 mph, ease slightly back on the accelerator until no energy arrows appear on the energy monitor, indicating that the vehicle is neither relying on the engine nor recharging the battery. As a result, the car begins to glide. When the vehicle slows to about 30 mph, repeat the whole process again, pulsing and then gliding.

The pulse-and-glide technique improves fuel economy by minimizing use of the internal combustion engine. There is a version of this technique that can also be applied to non-hybrid vehicles, but be aware that it is outlawed in several states because it would require actually turning the engine off, which causes the power-assist for the brakes and steering to fail. If the key is in the off position, the steering will also lock.

Coaxing an "auto-stop"
Similar to the pulse and glide, auto-stop simply involves placing the vehicle's transmission into neutral, turning off the engine and coasting to a stop. This seems innocent enough, but any time a car is moving without the engine running, vehicle control is compromised. Some devoted — and dangerous — hypermilers do this while driving down a hill at rather high speeds, refusing to brake even around corners. Some people might even call this technique irresponsible.

Draft at your own risk
A "draft-assisted" auto-stop involves tailgating a semitruck. By taking advantage of the draft generated in the truck's wake, wind resistance is markedly reduced for the hypermiler's car. "This is particularly dangerous," said Thomas, "as you must travel dangerously close to the 18-wheelers for the technique's full effect."

Read the whole article at

Regarding drafting: Discovery Channel's Mythbusters, in their June 6, 2007, episode, took a series of measurements where they drove a Dodge Magnum Station Wagon at 55 mph right behind a Freightliner tractor trailer. As they got closer their results ranged from a baseline (no truck) figure of 32 mpg, to 35.5 mpg (11 percent improvement) at 100 feet, and then progressively up to 44.5 mpg (a 39 percent increase) at ten feet, as a result of decreased drag consequent of drafting. They strongly emphasized that drafting a big rig at such close distances is life-threatening and extremely dangerous. They recommended a minimum safe driving distance from a big rig is 150 ft. (source)

For hypermilers, the task of improving their fuel economy is an entertaining game, albeit a serious one. Every drive for this elite group of fuel-sippers is an opportunity to break their own mileage record. They may never stop — literally — in their quest for ultimate fuel-efficiency.


More hypermiling and fuel-saving articles:

First, meet the Grandaddy of Hypermiling, Wayne Gerdes:
This Guy Can Get 59 MPG in a Plain Old Accord. Beat That, Punk. (Mother Jones) Here's another article on Gerdes from CNN.

How to Increase Your Gas Mileage (Washington Post)

Is an Idle Car the Devil's Workshop? (Slate)

Does it Really Save Gas to Roll Down Your Windows Instead of Flipping on the AC? (Slate)

Dallas hypermiler Chuck Thomas demonstrates his techniques (Video, Dallas Morning News)

Fuel economy-maximizing behaviors (Wikipedia)

Note that the Automobile Association of America says hypermiling is dangerous when taken to the extreme.(Article)

Read the rebuttal from hypermilers at

Friday, May 30, 2008

Guard that Grease! (And Bird Droppings!)

Ever deep-fried a turkey, or had a tempura party?

Great fun, good food. But what to do with that rancid used oil? We're not supposed to pour it down the drain, and it would kill your compost pile.

Thanks to high fuel prices, you might just leave a container of it by the garbage and hope someone steals it.

The New York Times reports:

"Outside Seattle, cooking oil rustling has become such a problem that the owners of the Olympia Pizza and Pasta Restaurant in Arlington, Wash., are considering using a surveillance camera to keep watch on its 50-gallon grease barrel. Nick Damianidis, an owner (pictured above), said the barrel had been hit seven or eight times since last summer by siphoners who strike in the night.

“Fryer grease has become gold,” Mr. Damianidis said. “And just over a year ago, I had to pay someone to take it away.”

"Much to the surprise of Mr. Damianidis and many other people, processed fryer oil, which is called yellow grease, is actually not trash. The grease is traded on the booming commodities market. Its value has increased in recent months to historic highs, driven by the even higher prices of gas and ethanol, making it an ever more popular form of biodiesel to fuel cars and trucks.

"In 2000, yellow grease was trading for 7.6 cents per pound. On Thursday, its price was about 33 cents a pound, or almost $2.50 a gallon." "

Well, this is one aspect of the restaurant industry that doesn't get much attention! Grease thieves aside, though, there are several outfits that are well aware of this goldmine.

There are specially-outfitted grease collection trucks available for the purpose.

(Cartoon from Mumblings from a Padded Room)

NWPR's Traffic Manager Laura Hartner was once a grease collector. With dreams of making her own biodiesel, she went from fryer to fryer, asking for their used grease, which they were only too happy to give to her. After all, it meant they did not have to pay for the oily (and sometimes stinky) stuff to be removed from their premises! Unfortunately, Laura wasn't able to realize her wishes, so I put her in touch with a friend of mine, who converts the grease into biodiesel in his backyard. He runs a couple of very nice European diesel cars on the stuff!

I wonder if the price of commercial diesel is going to put a crimp in the fuel line of home biodiesel manufacturers.

The price of oil is also affecting the price of fertilizers made from the black stuff. And that's reviving an industry in Peru, for guano. Bird (or bat) droppings.

Also in the New York Times:

"Guano in Peru sells for about $250 a ton while fetching $500 a ton when exported to France, Israel and the United States. While guano is less efficient than urea at releasing nitrates into the soil, its status as an organic fertilizer has increased demand, transforming it into a niche fertilizer sought around the world."

The guano comes from birds such as these guanay cormorants, found on Isla Asia, one of Peru's guano islands (picture from Bill of the Birds)

According to one guano collector:

"There might be 10 years of supplies left, or perhaps 20, and then it will be completely exhausted,” he said, referring to fears that the seabird population could be poised to fall sharply in the years ahead. It is a minor miracle that any guano at all is available here today, reflecting a century-old effort hailed by biologists as a rare example of sustainable exploitation of a resource once so coveted that the United States authorized its citizens to take possession of islands or keys where guano was found.

As a debate rages over whether global oil output has peaked, a parable may exist in the story of guano, with its seafaring treachery, the development of synthetic alternatives in Europe and a desperate effort here to prevent the deposits from being depleted.

“Before there was oil, there was guano, so of course we fought wars over it,” said Pablo Arriola, director of Proabonos, the state company that controls guano production, referring to conflicts like the Chincha Islands War, in which Peru prevented Spain from reasserting control over the guano islands. “Guano is a highly desirous enterprise.”

Little wonder then, that the Peruvian government restricts guano collection, and station armed guards at each of the islands to ward off threats to birds, which produce 12,000 to 15,000 tons of guano a year.

Read the whole article: Peru Guards Its Guano as Demand Soars Again. You can get a close-up look at Peru's guano islands at this blog entry on Bill of the Birds.

And here's the grease story: As Oil Prices Soar, Restaurant Grease Thefts Rise.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Preventing food waste at all-you-can-eat buffets

Here's what many restaurants in Singapore do at their smorgasbords: diners are charged one flat price to indulge as much as they wish, but at the end of the meal, any uneaten food is weighed, and the diners charged accordingly.

From what I hear, one pays a few dollars for every 100 grams (about a quarter pound) of food left uneaten on their plate.

Could that strategy work in the United States?

The Environmental Impact of Food Waste

A lot of attention's been given to world food shortages and their soaring prices, but what about the question of food waste?

First, how much food do Americans throw out? Bear in mind, much of this is perfectly edible food.

From the New York Times:

"In 1997, in one of the few studies of food waste, the Department of Agriculture estimated that two years before, 96.4 billion pounds of the 356 billion pounds of edible food in the United States was never eaten. (That's 27 percent! - GC) Fresh produce, milk, grain products and sweeteners made up two-thirds of the waste. An update is under way.

"The study didn’t account for the explosion of ready-to-eat foods now available at supermarkets, from rotisserie chickens to sandwiches and soups. What do you think happens to that potato salad and meatloaf at the end of the day?

(For cafeterias, restaurants and supermarkets, it [is] just as easy to toss food that wasn’t sold into trash bins than to worry about somebody getting sick from it. And then filing a lawsuit.)

"A more recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total waste stream. All but about 2 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills; by comparison, 62 percent of yard waste is composted.

"The numbers seem all the more staggering now, given the cost of groceries and the emerging food crisis abroad." (Full article: One Country's Table Scraps, Another Country's Meal.)

And that's just the United States. Together with the food wasted in other developed countries, it's mind-boggling.

In the UK, the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that a third of all the apples sold there were tossed. "Besides apples, households are also dumping 5.1 million potatoes a day, 2.8 million tomatoes, 1.6 million bananas, and 1.2 million oranges. These were not scraps or peelings but whole items in good condition.

WRAP revealed before Christmas that about 6.7 million tonnes of food a year is dumped in bins. This represents a third of all food bought for consumption at home and is worth a total of £8 billion, or an average £400 (USD 780)for every household. (Source)

Back to the NY Times article:

And consider this: the rotting food that ends up in landfills produces methane, a major source of greenhouse gases.

"The federal government tried once before, during the Clinton administration, to get the nation fired up about food waste, but the effort was discontinued by the Bush administration. The secretary of agriculture at the time, Dan Glickman, created a program to encourage food recovery and gleaning, which means collecting leftover crops from farm fields.

"He assigned a member of his staff, Mr. Berg, to oversee the program, and Mr. Berg spent the next several years encouraging farmers, schools, hospitals and companies to donate extra crops and food to feeding charities. A Good Samaritan law was passed by Congress that protected food donors from liability for donating food and groceries, spurring more donations.

“We made a dent,” said Mr. Berg, now at the New York City hunger group. “We reduced waste and increased the amount of people being fed. It wasn’t a panacea, but it helped.”

With the current food crisis, it seems possible that the issue of food waste might have more traction this time around."

Jonathan Bloom, who writes the blog Wasted Food, said he was encouraged by the increasing Web chatter about saving money on food, something that used to be confined to the “frugal mommy blogs.”

“The fundamental thing that I’m fighting against is, ‘why should I care? I paid for it,’ ” Mr. Bloom said. “The rising prices are really an answer to that.”

Sounds like a very good time to resuscitate that food recovery program, doesn't it?

"Of course, eliminating food waste won’t solve the problems of world hunger and greenhouse-gas pollution. But it could make a dent in this country and wouldn’t require a huge amount of effort or money. The Department of Agriculture estimated that recovering just 5 percent of the food that is wasted could feed four million people a day; recovering 25 percent would feed 20 million people."

Here again is that report, One Country's Table Scraps, Another Country's Meal.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Blame Game of Rising Food Prices

“When you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up.”George W. Bush, on India’s burgeoning middle class (May 2, 2008)

If Americans slimmed down to the weight of middle-class Indians, “many hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plates.” - Pradeep S. Mehta, secretary general of the center for international trade, economics and the environment of CUTS International.

Mr. Mehta also said, tongue firmly in cheek, the money spent in the United States on liposuction to get rid of fat from excess consumption could be funneled to feed famine victims.

Indians from the prime minister’s office on down frequently point out that per capita, India uses far lower quantities of commodities and pollutes far less than nations in the West, particularly the United States.

There may be some foundation to Indians’ accusations of hypocrisy by the West. The United States uses — or throws away — 3,770 calories a person each day, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization collected in 2001-3, compared with 2,440 calories per person in India. Americans are also the largest per capita consumers in any major economy of the most energy-intensive common food source, beef, the Agriculture Department says.

So who’s more to blame for rising prices, the US or India? The argument is in today’s New York Times: Indians Find U.S. at Fault in Food Cost.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Earthquakes, Cyclones, Superstition….and Political Change

Today, NPR’s Morning Edition had a very interesting conversation with reporter Frank Langfitt, who spent more than five years in China as a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun.

The subject: the politics of natural disaster in China.

Besides discussing how politics are influencing the response scene, about three and a half minutes into the conversation, Langfitt talked about natural disasters in Chinese political culture.

He explained that in this view, major natural disasters such as floods, famines and earthquakes can signal the end of what’s known as the Mandate of Heaven.

Similar to the Divine Right of Kings, under this concept, the heavens bestow powers to earthly leaders. Should the celestial forces be displeased with the way those leaders are wielding power, they will take those powers away – and can signal this change with a great natural disaster.

Journalist John Pomfret of the Washington Post takes this further in his blog, Pomfret’s China:

“On July 28, 1976 at 3:42 A.M., an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale shook Tangshan, a coal mining town to the east of Beijing. Sixteen hours later another 7.8 trembler rocked Tangshan again. Chinese official sources say 242,000 died, making the Great Tangshan Quake the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century and the third deadliest of all time.

“To the Chinese, however, the Tangshan Quake didn't just spell disaster, it augured change. Six weeks later (on Sept. 2), Chairman Mao died, ending the Cultural Revolution and sparking a battle to change China won ultimately by Deng Xiaoping. Two other major Communist figures had already "gone to meet Marx" that year.

“Natural disasters in China mean more than they do in the West. Many Chinese hold a view that the government is responsible for maintaining the harmony under heaven. If the earth buckles and shakes, it's a harbinger of political or social upheaval.

“China's Communist government spent decades trying to stamp out superstitions and feudal beliefs such as these, but it has failed. The last two decades of economic reform have sparked an explosion of traditional beliefs and a renewed interest in Chinese Buddhist-like sects.”

Today’s Chinese leaders may publicly eschew superstition, but I suspect that Frank Langfitt was rught when he said they this quake has probably rattled them internally, making them ask what it all means under the Mandate of Heaven. (How does I Ching, the Book of Changes, relate to the Mandate of Heaven? Read about it here)

Whether by Mandate of Heaven, Divine Right of Kings or common sense,here’s one florid example of not using power responsibly: we turn our attention to the military government of Myanmar, formerly (and preferably, to many) known as Burma.

Reports from that secretive military state in the wake of Cyclone Nargis have been alternately chilling, repulsive and infuriating. The international community continues to plead with the ruling junta for access to deliver aid to the hundreds of thousands of survivors in dire straits, but are met with one ridiculous rule after another: visas denied to aid workers, demands that all relief supplies be distributed only by the government. Many say that the government is hoarding these relief supplies for itself, while it distributes rotten food to the cyclone survivors. (More from the BBC, World wrestles with Burma aid issue.)

Newsweek’s Melinda Liu notes the Myanmar government is missing in action.

“The 400,000-strong military kept an unusually low profile last week, suggesting serious dysfunction at the top. Sr. Gen. Tan Shwe, the nation's leader, was nowhere to be seen. Buddhist monks and nuns appeared to be spearheading community clean-up campaigns—although state censors instructed the media to report only on military relief efforts. But some troops seemed more concerned with social control than social welfare. Instead of helping emergency services, for example, some soldiers conducted surveillance of local NGO staffers who were offering free funeral services to the bereaved families, according to Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile and editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thai-based magazine about Burma.

"Burmese dissidents who planned to sabotage the [constitutional] election (scheduled for May 10th)," he says,"feel the cyclone has done their work for them" by driving ordinary Burmese into the arms of the opposition. Many citizens in this superstitious country seem to believe that the storm represented nothing less than divine retribution—cosmic payback for the violent sacrilege committed by the junta last September, when the military put a bloody end to the "Saffron Revolution." Crowds of monks had taken to the streets with an estimated 100,000 civilians to protest the country's deepening economic hardships, including an abrupt fuel-price hike. The regime responded with fury, beating and imprisoning clerics and laypeople alike and killing as many as 138. Now many Burmese see the monster cyclone as proof that Than Shwe and his junta have lost the "mandate of heaven"—the supernatural right to govern.”

Liu looks to other countries to see what natural disasters can do to regimes.

Mexico City, 1985: “After a massive earthquake hit, the authorities and the country's aloof president, Miguel de la Madrid, went AWOL for days, leaving citizens to organize rescue efforts themselves. When the president finally did appear, he initially announced that Mexico "didn't need outside help." With more than 10,000 estimated dead, survivors had quickly taken to the streets to denounce the government's weak response. These protests energized a new crop of community activists and opposition leaders, lighting a spark that eventually brought down Mexico's long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) years later.

Tangshan, China, 1976: “By the time that quake hit, killing up to 600,000, the Cultural Revolution was nearing its end, Mao was ailing and moderate leaders were already plotting to oust his most zealous accomplices. When the government then proceeded to badly fumble relief efforts— refusing international aid, among other things—it strengthened the hand of reformers who wanted to end China's isolation. Three months later, Mao was dead, the extremist "Gang of Four" was behind bars and the reins of power were passing to Deng Xiaoping—now famous for his unabashed embrace of capitalism.”

“In each of these cases, the chain of events leading to political change was long and complicated, but the governments' incompetence in the face of great tragedy helped tip the scales.”

"One shouldn't count out Burma's leaders yet. The military has managed to cling to power for 46 years now, despite losing an election in 1990 to the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who's been under house arrest nearly ever since.

And the regime has a ready reply to deny it has now lost its heavenly mandate. In 2005, heeding astrologers' advice, the officers moved the country's capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, a hardscrabble town some 250 miles north. This location helped the new capital escape the worst of Nargis's wrath—though of course it's unclear whether this was a sign of blessing or just dumb luck. Still, the generals must know that surviving a cyclone is one thing. Avoiding the human earthquake it provokes is a whole other matter.

Read Melinda Liu’s article Winds of Change

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Does Mom REALLY want a card and roses?



And reposted ahead of Mother's Day 2008 in the U.S.


Sunday, March 18th was Mothering Sunday in the UK, roughly two months before its equivalent in the US: Mother's Day, where it falls on the second Sunday in May. On this occasion, the BBC reports that the woman who invented the celebration spent 40 years of her life fighting the commercialism that sprang up around the day.

Anna Jarvis campaigned for over a decade before President Woodrow Wilson, in 1914, dedicated a day to mothers.

Within a few years, the occasion became commercialized, to Anna's horror.

"Along with her sister Ellsinore, Anna spent the entire family inheritance on trying to undo the damage done to Mother's Day. One of her protests even got her arrested for disturbing the peace. She died in 1948, in poverty and without success.

"In one respect what Ms Jarvis wanted from the day lives on - it has taken on huge significance and is a celebration of motherhood. However, how most people chose to celebrate it would make her turn in her grave."

"Consumers are pressured by advertising and businesses to measure goodwill in terms of presents, says branding expert Jonathan Gabay.

"Mother's Day has become a yearly windfall to business. It's an opportunity to market everything from cut flowers and greetings cards to nostalgic CDs, perfume and beauty products."

The commercialism that accompanies so many holidays in the U.S. truly sickens me. Christmas as it is celebrated today was created by Coca-Cola, Montgomery Ward, Hallmark and other corporations, who saw immense opportunities which I'm sure have far exceeded their early expectations. People have completely caved to advertising and corporate propaganda. How many times have you heard of people going into serious credit card debt over Christmas presents? Did Jesus ever say "be sure to go into debt in My Name"? And yet, here we are. Valentine's and Halloween? Wouldn't be surprised at all to hear Hershey's and other candy companies had a big hand in turning these days into what are now the two biggest sugar high days of the year.

Fortunately, Thanksgiving seems to have escaped most of that commercial frenzy. It's one thing for which I DO give thanks every November.

But back to Mother's Day. I hardly claim to speak for all mothers, but for me a Hallmark card and a dozen roses don't do a thing. Going out to brunch on usually involves a crowded restaurant and waiting, which isn't my cup of tea. As much as chocolate is a lovely gift, it gives me nowhere the pleasure of my children's handmade cards and notes, awkward as they may be. THAT'S a present! I had told the kids to stop buying me stuff, so the handmade cards started coming, along with "Mom's Day Off," and the occasional surprise. One year, my son handed me a little basket of morel mushrooms he'd picked in the woods. He'd heard me say I missed the taste of morels. Three years ago, my daughter gave me a jar with little strips of paper in it, on which she wrote things that she loved about me. She told me to remember to open the jar and read the strips whenever I had a bad day. Really made me tear up.

Hallmark and FTD can't top these.

What do I really want for Mother's Day?

Pretty much what I have with my children every day. Good conversation, honesty, humor and respect. I want what any Mom wants: happy, fulfilled children. I want to look at them and see gentle souls, loving hearts, humor, generosity and good judgement; to know they've been equipped properly to be independent and responsible adults. The best thing my kids could give to me on Mother's Day is to let me know how I'm doing in my efforts to bring them up to be all these things.

Anna Jarvis was right to be horrified at the commercialization of the holiday she championed. Showering Mom with gifts and some pampering one day a year is no compensation for taking her for granted the rest of the year.

More mothers are taking up Anna Jarvis' fight against the commercialization of Mother's Day. The BBC piece quotes Carrie Longton, a founder of Mumsnet (in the UK):

"There is a real movement among mothers at the moment to think about mothers who are less fortunate. We are encouraging people to make a donation to charities that help mothers worldwide rather than buy flowers.

"I will be working on a cake stall on Mother's Day to raise money for HIV mothers in Africa. It costs just £7 to buy the medicine to make sure they don't pass HIV onto their children."

It's this type of action that Ms Jarvis would approve of. Especially as she hated Mother's Day cards, calling them "a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write".

Hear, hear!!

Read the whole BBC article here.


UPDATE 2: NPR had a piece on the marketing of Mother's Day, then and now. It aired on Friday, May 11. Listen to the Morning Edition piece here.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Juan Diego Florez Breaks Met's Ban on Encores


Donizetti's opera La fille du regiment (Daughter of the Regiment) may be best known for the aria Ah mes amis, notorious for bearing all of NINE high Cs. For that reason it's called the Mount Everest for tenors. And Monday night, Juan Diego Florez not only hit those difficult notes, he did an instant encore.

What's the big deal? Encores are banned at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

That's not all: last year, JDF did a encore (or, its Italian equivalent, bis) of that same aria in Milan, where the practice of bis was banned by Toscanini.

First, here's the deal with that aria. From Wikipedia: "(The) 9 high Cs....come comparatively early in the opera, giving the singer less time to warm up his voice. Many lesser tenors do not quite hit the notes (hitting B natural instead), especially as they come in rapid-fire succession and require considerable vocal dexterity."

Now here's the deal with the ban on encores.

"Bear in mind, an encore in an Italian opera house is not the same as an encore in most places – that is, at the very end of the concert. Rather, their version of an encore (a French word) is called bis (the Italian word for again, as in biscotti, the twice-baked cookie.) The bis is done in the manner of an instant replay. The audience doesn’t want to wait for the very end of the opera (or even an act of the opera). So with prolonged applause, cheering and calls of “bis! bis!” the conductor picks up the aria again, and the singer pipes up - this time usually out of character. I’ve read that the bis has been requested at the end of a death scene, which entails the now-dead character resurrecting temporarily to appease audience demand, then reassuming the death pose when the opera action resumes. As I’ve noted in previous posts, ludicrousness is just one of the things that make me love opera so! But Toscanini hated the way these encores broke the flow of an opera and put a ban on the practice." (From my blog entry last year.)

Watch the video of Florez singing Ah, mes amis.

Here's the New York Times' account of the encore: Ban on Solo Encores at the Met? Ban, What Ban?

Before JDF, it was Luciano Pavarotti who thrilled audiences with his high Cs. You can read more about the allure of that note, and why Pavarotti's execution of it took the opera world by storm, in this blog entry.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Northwesterner's View of Obama's "Bitter" Remark

Last week Barack Obama said Pennsylvania's small town voters are bitter about losing jobs and to explain their frustrations, they "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."

Of course, those comments were abundant grist for the mills of the other presidential hopefuls, and pundits. But it's been nearly a week since his comments, and STILL it's a hot topic of discussion in the media. Is it the case outside newsrooms? Maybe - but none of my friends and acquaintances - usually not at all shy about voicing their views - have uttered a word about it to me. They had a much stronger response after Obama delivered his speech on race.

Among those offended by Obama was New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. She's generally had positive things to say about the Illinois Senator, in contrast to Hillary Clinton. But his "bitter" remarks turned her off.

"What turns off voters," she wrote, "is the detached egghead quality that they tend to equate with a wimpiness, wordiness and a lack of action — the same quality that got the professorial and superior Adlai Stevenson mocked by critics as Adelaide. The new attack line for Obama rivals is that he’s gone from J.F.K. to Dukakis. (Just as Dukakis chatted about Belgian endive, Obama chatted about Whole Foods arugula in Iowa.) Obama did not grow up in cosseted circumstances. [But] his exclusive Hawaiian prep school and years in the Ivy League made him a charter member of the elite, along with the academic experts he loves to have in the room."

(Dowd's piece is titled Eggheads and Cheeseballs.)

Commentators say Obama's comments were elitist, insulting, and out of touch....yet that has not translated into a significant drop in his poll numbers. Why the discrepancy in response?

Another Times writer tackles that issue.

Timothy Egan is originally from Spokane, and shares his view in his blog post, Lost Town Blues. Many of the readers' comments come from Washington State and northern Idaho.

Here's the blog entry, plus excerpts from some comments.

Lost Town Blues

In the town where I grew up, men had new trucks in their driveways, and three weeks of vacation for chasing deer in the fall and fish in the summer. They drank beer at a morning happy-hour after the graveyard shift ended, and voted for Democrats because they cared about the little guy, or so it was said.

In less than a generation’s time, the life jobs at the aluminum factory disappeared and the men lost their health benefits, their pensions, their self-confidence. You could say, without starting a fight, that some of them turned to God or guns for comfort — or at least for diversion. And then there were those who turned to alcohol.
It’s an old story, the grinding of winners into losers, a sort of geographic lottery. My town was Spokane, Wash., which has rebounded somewhat from the collapse of Kaiser Aluminum. But it could be McKeesport, Pa., or Utica, N.Y., or any of the 900 counties across the country that have lost jobs or population for decades.

People who live in small towns that have been passed over don’t need to be told that they’re bitter, or heroic. They’re stuck, is what they are. The honest ones say they would follow their kids out of town, if only they had the means. A few years ago, a University of Nebraska survey of 3,087 people in rural counties asked people how they felt about their lives. Only 11 percent of them said they were satisfied with where they lived. Optimism, as much a part of the landscape as winter wheat, was disappearing.

This sentiment, real but wrapped up in pride over place, may be in part why the polls show little change in Barack Obama’s standing since his comments about the bitterness of small towns and the working class. The pundits and voters are having two different conversations, not for the first time.

In that sense, the arc of this controversy is typical of how these things go: struggling towns are props, not issues.

One side rushes to drape themselves in flags, guns and the kind of Norman Rockwell hagiography that is far removed from the 2008 reality of meth labs and foreclosure frontiers. The other side says religion is for fools, and if only they had a new Starbucks in town, some of those Bible-banging gun nuts could learn to love Sundays with Norah Jones and a Scrabble game.

The low point in this discussion was Hillary Clinton talking about how she learned to shoot — “behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton.” Yes, and after that it was Wellesley, Yale, the White House and the $109 million fortune she made with her husband trading in their name and influence. She’s got elite cred with the best of them.

Obama can counter with the endorsement this week from Bruce Springsteen. Nobody in American literature or politics has done a better job than the Boss of describing (as in “My Hometown”) the heartbreak of a foreman who says, “these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back.”

But for a presidential campaign, we should forget rock lyrics, guns and God, and who can throw back a boiler-maker like a real man. The only question should be how — or whether — rust belt and rural towns can join the tomorrow economies.

For that matter, we should retire the test over which presidential candidate voters would most like to have a beer with. [YES, PLEASE!!!!! - Gillian] George W. Bush, when he was drinking, was probably a fun guy in a bar — all those frat boy tricks, flatulence jokes and arcane stats on long-retired major leaguers.

But he’s run the country into the ground, even if the only measurement is how blue collar workers fared under his watch. And he is the only leader who has actually embraced the elite label. At a fundraising dinner during his first term with the “haves and the have-mores,” as he referred to them, Bush said: “Some people call you the elite — I call you my base.” Now, he was joking, but there’s an element of truth there. And for the record, median hourly wages in Pennsylvania are down 16 cents from five years ago, adjusting for inflation.

So, solutions? On John McCain’s Web site, he talks as much about reviving small town America as he does about Lindsay Lohan’s love life — zilch. Clinton and Obama each have detailed, multi-point proposals. They’re heavy on new energy solutions — solar, wind, converting crops to fuel, with faded factory towns doing the work. The problem, as we’ve seen with the huge rise in commodity crop prices, is that when food and fuel compete for the same source, family budgets strain. Hillary is out with a new ad in Indiana, promising to keep defense jobs in the state — pork as public policy, another sleight-of-hand trick for small town America.

Is it too much to ask one of these candidates for an honest but painful statement suggesting that perhaps a lot of these towns may never come back? Or that the way to economic revival is to lose the pipe dream that Google is going to relocate to an old steel town because they have a tax-free enterprise zone and some cool mountain-bike trails?

“By the time November rolls around,” said Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Hillary’s top surrogate in the state, Obama’s comment “will be long forgotten.”

So will small town America. Again.


From the readers' comments:

"People tend to focus on Barack’s comment about people clinging to guns and religion but ignore the preceding statement about decades of unfulfilled promises from politicians from both parties. When taken out of context, his statement sounds petty and mean. The complete statement hints at an “inconvenient truth” of another kind, that none of the political elite wish to acknowledge."

"I largely agree with Mr. Egan’s and Mr. Obama’s sentiments on small-town America. Although there is plenty of pride in cities and towns alike, it’s hard to miss the lack of interesting opportunities in small towns. For my fellow Washingtonians just consider the struggles people have had to endure in Forks, where significantly reduced logging has dramatically cut incomes. Or, Omak or Wilson Creek or Soap Lake, a place that’s [sic] best bet is tourism and the world’s largest lava lamp. All these towns have their charm but in global economy everyone’s best bet are the large metro areas, like Seattle."

"I worked for Kaiser in Spokane and also the steel industry in the 60’s to 80’s. I share your feelings about the “Lost Town Blues”. It’s painful to see all of the people hurt by the greed and shortsightedness of those like George W Bush that have run this country into the ground. My family rebounded from our difficulties and because of this I still have optimism that we - this country - can dig ourselves out of this big hole that we are in. What we need is an uplift by new leaders such as Barack Obama to get people working again in areas that will address our infrastructure needs, global warming, energy independence and others."

"I too was flummoxed by the reaction to Obama’s statement of the obvious. Why the bruhaha? I lived in a small town (Port Angeles) where the jobs in timber and fishing were gone and never coming back. I worked in legal aid and saw the ravaged lives of former loggers from Forks. (Hopefully the vampire industry generated by the Eclipse series will bring some tourism dollars to this suffering town…) Unfettered gun rights, anti-gay sentiment and seething hatred of environmentalists ran rampant. On a more positive note, religious communities took the place of the union hall and we took care of each other. We knew who the people in need were among us and we looked after them. It’s a different world."

"Some portray his words as being worse than the loss of the jobs — or that they need Hillary to come protect them from elitist comments. Please. What are yoins thinkin’? But our otherwise eloquent wordsmith Senator Obama needs a better word choice describing people’s religion, to be sure."

Here's a link to Timothy's Egan's blog entry, where you can also read all the comments.

Meantime, here's just one of many analyses of Obama's comment.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Very Punny Wine.

I've been so busy lately that this blog's been relegated to the legendary back burner. So while I try to get caught up, enjoy this recycled post - and if you have tasted any of these wines, please do share your impressions! This was originally posted in February 2007.

The Rhône River Valley produces good and reasonable red wines made from grapes such as Syrah and Grenache. These are the popular Côtes du Rhône wines.

And for the last few years, they've had to tolerate a cheeky nudge from South Africa.

Vintner Charles Back created this “Rhône-style blend but with a Cape flavour” in 1999, using a blend using of Rhône varieties such as shiraz, cinsaut, carignan and mourvèdre with a dash of South African pinotage.

Back says he wasn’t trying to take a dig at the French. Fairview Winery’s “legend” recounts how some of its goats (which provide milk for Fairview’s internationally acclaimed cheeses) took advantage of an open gate and headed for the winery’s famous goat tower.

The little group happily roamed among the vineyards, and supposedly nibbled on different grape varieties that made up the blend that birthed this cheeky little wine.

Likely story!

Nonetheless, it has its fans, one who describes it thus:

“Dark ruby in color with reddish glints, it shows spicy black-plum aromas with just a hint of earthiness. Its ripe, peppery and plummy flavor is shaped by tangy, lemon-squirt acidity.”

The success led Charles Back to have a little more pun with his next wines.

France may have Côtes du Rhone Villages, but South Africa's Goats do Roam in Villages, in spite of objections.

More South African humor here, riffing on Bordeaux and Cotes d'Or:

Bored Doe and Goat Door Chardonnay.

And did these playful labels upset the French?

"You bet," writes Sandra Silfven in the Detroit News, "but not until Fairview tried to register the Goats do Roam in Villages name in the U.S. The French INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine), which polices France's appellations, took legal action to block Fairview's trademark registrations and stop them from using the Goats Do Roam and Goat-Roti names. Apparently, they thought Americans were too dumb to know the wines weren't French. The tiff attracted so many yuks and headlines that the French quietly dropped the matter."

That's PUNishment, indeed.

And how about The Goatfather.

"With the rise to prominence of the Goats do Roam Family, challengers to their position have emerged on many fronts. Don Goatti, in true Sicilian tradition, fiercely protects the herd, their loyal customers and the winemaking secrets of the family. While few in the family know the final blend, The Goatfather always includes a selection of Italian varietals, maintaining their omertá over quality and consistency through the family of wines. The Goats will roam…Capisce?!"

(From the Goats do Roam website)

I raised some sheep when I lived in Oregon; they are close relatives of goats. From firsthand experience I can tell you, leave an opening, and sheep as well as goats DO roam far and wide and damn, they run FAST! You'd best not have been at the bottle if you have to chase down your goats or sheep.

Here's a link to Goats do Roam and Fairview.