Thursday, January 31, 2008

Reining the Rat Race

Within China, millions of workers leave their homes to work in far flung factories and construction sites, suffering the separation from families and children, and patiently persevere throughout the year to provide for the needs of those left behind. Their yearlong thirst for their loved ones is quenched only by that small window of opportunity during the Lunar year when their physical presence and warm embrace shall be felt and reciprocated in a caring moment. That Lunar Year is also called the Spring Festival and it is 7 days away. And they are racing against time and very severe elements to get home for the Year of the Rat.

Facing the world's biggest mass migration of people is a hostile and unforgiving weather, bringing with it its worst condition in over 50 years. An estimated 190 million people are expected to travel by train and another 25 million by airplane; but authorities see that with the weather taking a turn for the worse, most of them will be stranded on the road and will fail to make it in time for the Chinese New Year. Where each of these Chinese citizens are concerned, they are of one mind, and they focus on only one thing: getting home is an obligation, the Lunar Year fulfills ancient obligations too for the family, and no matter how difficult it gets, reaching home is the only option. Multiply this 215 million times against the worst impact of weather turbulence, and you can see an epic collision of man against nature, in colossal proportions.

For those outside of China, the mere mention of the country or its people elicits images of vast expanses, hugeness, volumes of products, people in unimaginable numbers moving in several directions, or the cheap toys, t-shirts, shoes, clothes, food, or even lead content and contaminated dumplings. Statistics that define its growth and potential boggles the mind and misses seeing a critical fact: all the statistics were created and produced by the ordinary Chinese worker, earning US $4.00 per day working 12 to 16 hours daily, seven days a week. And here he stands in the snow and the cold, practically side by side with 215 million others just like himself, delayed for a chance to be with family and child, enduring but waiting patiently, thinking only of home, and determined to get there.

Here is a mass of humanity driven by a very human emotion to be with family, slammed by the forces of nature indifferent to their plight. If they make it home, they will be greeted by a power crisis because of frozen power grids, and paralyzed transport system due to the bad weather. The ice has destroyed crops and transportation paralysis has prevented deliveries in stores; causing shortages and inflating prices of commodities and items used for the season.The weather has already cost the economy US$7.5billion, and this is expected to rise as the storm continues.

The trains are the best chance of getting home and authorities have secured the railways to prevent riots and stampedes. Hundreds of thousands have camped out on the railway stations hoping to get a ride. Some estimate their travel time at 50 hours by train then bus, and a walk of 3 miles to get home, journey of more than a thousand miles. The Chinese government issued a request for the workers to abandon plans of returning home for the holidays due to the crisis, and employers have suggested that workers can return home after the storm has blown over. These efforts were aimed at putting a rein on the number of people who would be served by the transportation available. Reactions from the workers were lukewarm. Some said failing to come home is like "my child does not exist." Authorities were able to convince about 470,000 from flying to their destinations and were given their refunds. Most suspect that these passengers would simply look for another way to travel.

There are those who say that these problems could have been avoided if the Authorities stockpiled on coal and placed advance orders for coal from Australia. Others say that modernization of the power grids and transport systems have been delayed for so long that it has been overtaken by the volume of regular users, rendering these outdated and obsolete.

These could only be hoped for by those standing on the railway platforms waiting to get seated after 3 days. An improved weather condition today brightened hopes for the workers to get home. But forecasts remain bleak. The many faces here that represent many lives and many dreams and countless hopes might be viewed with awe or empathy, but these are human reflections with human emotions, desperate to rekindle the faith that binds them and the love that sustains their separation. Their power and endurance amidst frustration and anger is remarkable. This is a massive triumph for the human spirit.

The government's incompetence is the only real always.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Giuliani's Gameplan Glitch

Rudy Giuliani's game plan would have been a stroke of genius, a tactical maneuver intended to concentrate his efforts and strengths on his strongest points, poised at the weakest spot of his rivals. The plan had the elements of Sun Tzu written all over it, and Giuliani stuck to the plan believing that the gamble will pay off big time. But the time line between the Iowa caucus and the Florida primary generated various events that rendered the game plan outdated, and cast Giuliani as irrelevant. Addressing his supporters possibly for the last time, Rudy Giuliani's crowd came to a funeral; and as he spoke of his campaign in the past tense, he was in effect, delivering its eulogy.

Rudy hedged everything he had on Florida. A win here would have given him 57 delegates plus the momentum the expected victory would generate that could catapult him on February 5th to the nomination. It would be a big triumph and a magnetizing band wagon pull. He campaigned for more than 50 days and spent nearly $1million weekly to consolidate support in a state that had all the key factors for a Republican nomination: conservatives, hispanics, moderates, among others. Banking on his lead in the National polls, he assumed that he could avoid the early primaries where he had no chance of winning, and that these contests would not produce a clear front runner anyway. But the state to state roll of the primaries elicited 2 main contenders that made him traverse other states limply; and saw his political capital erode like the funds of Societe Generale' portfolio of fraudulent transactions.

Rudy also campaigned as a moderate to liberal Republican, but his support of abortion, gay rights, gun control, his personal lifestyle, did not sit well with conservatives. In addition, his entire persona was built around his leadership and character during the 9/11 bombing, however, these were overtaken by the economy issue which 47% of worried Republicans found most important. This negated his legendary, if not celebrity status, to irrelevance.

This is the end of the line for Rudy Giuliani. He is expected to endorse the candidacy of his friendliest rival John McCain within the week. The glitch in the plan involved not having solutions for unforeseen events or potential plan busters. There were no contingencies, the only thing that mattered was Florida; which does not speak well of his planning and management skills. As he calmly spoke of the debacle in positive terms, in "good bye" rather than "get going" tones, in one the more luxurious hotels along the glitzy boulevard in Orlando; Rudy Giuliani woke up to a nightmare, in this boulevard of broken dreams.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Subterranean Sewers of Sao-Paolo

In the bowels of Sao-Paolo, through the deepest and innermost portions of its winding subterranean sewer system, a gallery exists that defies the disfigured and discomfiting surroundings of a venue few people would even think of visiting. A location where first time visitors may not have the constitution to continue the journey within, much less return for a much deeper appreciation. The gallery's canvass are the walls and pillars of the sewer, enclosed in a tight, humid, foul smelling aura that instantly distorts the imagination and shatters the balance of one's creative harmony.

This milieu is both the workplace and exhibition area of Zezao, one of Brazil's most famous graffiti artists, whose choice of the dark and dangerous part of the city - where the brown and smelly water is a foul mixture that combines the rubbish and sewage from above - returns time and again to produce his work. Oftentimes submerged in knee to waist deep waters in the solitary confines of his chosen studio, Zezao has had several vaccinations that allow him to pursue his artistic, if not unimaginable, expression. Vaccinations that would perhaps put the worst L.A. junkie to shame in terms of the number of needle marks on his body.

Graffiti as an art form has few followers and there exists very little tolerance for these, especially among smug government bureaucrats who consider anyone with a spray paint can performing an act of hostility. Titifreak, another street artist, has shown his work around the world, but is considered a hostile vandal in Sao Paolo. Authorities have a limited perspective of what they consider hostile, without considering that the urban blight created by uncollected garbage, or overhead railways, humongous billboards that bring revenues to the city, are hostile to those that live within for its capacity to block the skyline and jar the imagination.

The Sao Paolo graffiti art has attracted tourists and artists from all over the world. However, in the city itself, there are many who consider it vandalism and few who consider it a work of art. Everyday, painters from the city authorities remove or erase these from the walls, in most cases removing even those that were elaborately and painstakingly done. Ironically, the Sao Paolo Museum of Contemporary Art is paying tribute to graffiti artists from Italy and Brazil. Sadly, many are those who dismiss even the most artistic ones as unacceptable. These neanderthals do not realize they are missing a part of literature and a chunk of culture.

But deep within the uninviting maze of tunnels in the sewers of Sao Paolo, there are works of such artistic magnificence executed with great care and thought provoking perseverance to detail that could be truly considered a work of art. But only the insects and the rats that infest the locale would get to see it. They would even mind the intrusion and be indifferent to its value. With all the dangers, filth, stench, and potential disease that inhabit the place, Zezao continues to pursue his art. His objective is to draw attention to the years of neglect that have caused the pollution. He wants to show the architecture, the pillars, the tunnels and all that make up the sewers that have been degraded and turned the place into rubbish. And beneath the gloom of his underground gallery, he hopes that his message will be heard.

Here is an idealist, a rebel who fights a lonely and gut wrenching battle against the forces of neglect and indifference; using his artistic talent, skill, youth, and perhaps his life to elicit action not for himself but for the city he cares for, hoping that his efforts will not be laid to waste.

To this day, city authorities consider his work as being full of, and fit only, for the end products of large intestines right where it is displayed. What a waste!


Monday, January 28, 2008

The Spitter's Seven Stories

The Spitter was into a lot of mischief as a child. In kindergarten, he opted for buttoned shorts versus the gartered type and proceeded to pull down the shorts of classmates when they stood up to recite. The teacher made a rule that the unruly ones would be seated with the girls, and every boy squirmed. The Spitter continued his mischief, then sat himself immediately beside the girl he had a fancy for. He also bet against a classmate that he could climb the top of the flag pole. He did, but got too scared to go down that the school was forced to call the fire department.

In high school, (run by catholic priests) the Spitter earned a reputation as a heretic. First,
he questioned the subject title Religion because it taught only Catholicism and suggested to call it as such. He questioned the teaching on bigotry by citing the priest's claim that the "Roman Catholic Religion is the only true religion", which he correctly noted was bigotry. The biggest "sin" he committed was questioning the improbability of being a 'Virgin" and a "Mother" at the same time, saying you're either one or the other. Also in high school, he hid during a fire drill, and when all the students were being counted where the teachers realized one was missing, he appears from the top floor shouting "Help, Help, Save Me", to the delight of all the students and to the consternation of the priests.

The last 2 years of High School till the first 2 years of College, he joined a band. It was a rock and roll band that played for fun, party gigs and to impress the girls. Popular tunes were played until the Beatles, Beachboys Rolling stones and other liverpool beats entered the scene. The band played up until the arrival of the more sophisticated groups like Led Zeppelin, Eagles, Queen, and KISS. No records were ever made except records for rowdiness perhaps and use of exotic substances.

In his last 2 years of College, the Spitter was intensely aware of the inequities in society. He joined organizations and movements that educated the masses, spearheaded class struggles, to the extent of going against and being outcast by his own class; joined protest marches and battled with the police and the military. In his last semester in College, martial law was declared and he was arrested and tortured a bit until his release 10 months later.

After College, his father asked him to try the corporate milieu. The Spitter had enough savvy and within seven years made it to the top level position of a European multi-national firm, tasked to take charge of the Asia-Pacific region. His career success and the financial rewards gave him a sense of accomplishment until he saw what it really meant. The success was founded on the exploitation of others, provision of hardships and difficulties to many marginalized sectors, and the insatiable greed of those whose intent was to make money, not friends; to drain the resources of wealth, not to give anything of value. At the top of his company and at the height of his career, the Spitter turned his back and quit.

The Spitter found his home in a Development Foundation. The institution was involved in countryside development and here he knew instantly that the path he took in his last 2 years of college would find new directions; away from confrontational struggle, and into developmental initiatives. He organized communities in rural and urban sectors, provided training in product development, technical applications, marketing, business operations, and poured everything he knew. He organized livelihood programs, created community products, worked on financing, and then professionalizing operations so these could be linked to mainstream markets. This was done with farmers, rural folks, urban folks, fisher folks, and other marginalized sectors as a way of atonement, perhaps. Little did he realize that in giving all he knew, he would receive more knowledge, more discernment, more enrichment, and more respect and admiration than he ever imagined he would get in a pretentious corporate setting.

Without looking back in anger, nor forward with fear, the Spitter moved to areas in education, environment and humanitarian concerns. Though accomplishments have been many, failed attempts remain a challenge, successful ones an inspiration. In every endeavor, finding the fun is a constant, learning is a staple, and happiness is the result. By the standards of society in general, success has been achieved by the Spitter; but he does not subscribe to their measure of material acquisition as a method of rating success. To him, it is within. It cannot be valuated by power, wealth, influence or property; but by the intangible values accumulated in the process of doing what you find fulfilling and meaningful. It is not in what you take from this world that translates as success to the Spitter, but it is in what you give back to this world to make it richer and better for others.

Looking at his present regional location, the world in general, and the current situation these are in, the Spitter realizes he has to give more, or he hasn't given enough.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Blacks Bolster Barack's Bid

Was Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory conceded by the Clinton strategists? Did the Clinton camp see the futility of contesting this primary and opted to put up a token campaign instead? Was the high profile presence of former President Bill Clinton intended to draw attention to the issues raised against Obama and expose the Illinois Senator's weaknesses to the entire nation, not merely in South Carolina? Was the expected victory of Obama intended to consolidate Hillary's base of support in the 24 state primary the way she did in New Hampshire? Is this a Queen's gambit of sorts?

The Clinton perspective could have seen the situation this way: They have won New Hampshire and Nevada. The Super Tuesday primary was only 10 days from the South Carolina primary, where bigger states like New York, New Jersey and California had to be consolidated and won. South Carolina was predominantly black (almost 60% of voters) and polls showed an overwhelming support for Obama among blacks. The reasons for a Hillary loss here were in-place, and a loss would not diminish her momentum going into February 5th. All Hillary needed was to take second place to cast a respectable finish. Whether or not they expected it to be 2 to 1 is another story, but the polls had already indicated that margin more than a month ago.

The plan involved the following: Hillary campaigns in New Jersey, New York and California and leaves Bill Clinton and Chelsea to represent her during most of the campaign days. They decide to cut all costs to a minimum to the point of practically conducting the campaign by remote control. Only 5 people were working in the Clinton campaign office in Greenville since the fall, compared to Obama's 20. The campaign did away with phone and mail campaigns and removed practically any extensive expenditures 2 months before. In contrast, Obama's campaign had the most extensive field coverage ever witnessed by the state. Finally, Bill Clinton's task was to draw attention to himself and to the issues he raised against Obama, and away from Hillary.

South Carolina was a MUST win for Barack. He needed this win to set him back on track as a top contender after stunning back to back losses. And that's all this victory did, make him a contender, but at what cost? Eighty per cent of blacks (comprising 59% of voters) voted for him, he also took 25% of the white votes. He obtained 58% of the 18 to 64 year old voters and only 22% of the women votes. In the predominantly white (78%) Greenville County, he garnered only 22%. Among women voters and those aged 65 and over, Clinton got 44% and 40% respectively. The results show Barack's weak areas among women voters, white and elderly voters; which could give him a huge problem come Super Tuesday.

Interestingly, 47% of voters made their choices more than a month ago, another 32% said they decided within the month, while 10% of those polled said they decided 3 days prior to the voting itself.

If the Clinton strategy indeed was to concede South Carolina, was it a wise one? It was. Barack was visibly rattled and irked during his stump and was very defensive during the debates. He was unable to defend himself against attacks on his health care plan; and his counter attack versus Hillary about Wal-Mart, was quashed by her statement against Barack defending a "slumlord" in Illinois. The week before the primary saw one of the most bitter attacks, accusations, and distortions from both camps. Hillary and Bill are adept at this game, and Obama was lured into it. Bill Clinton evaded making the campaign a gender versus race issue and expressed elation at the Party's progress in its choice of a Woman and an African American, as living up to the ideals of Martin Luther King; but that seems to be his real intention. With the blacks coming all out for Obama, the Clinton camp is anticipating a consolidation of Hillary's base of supporters where Obama's base are fewer in number, and where the delegate harvest is greater. Remember, Bill Clinton is a shrewd tactician and a street smart politician.

The New York Times has endorsed Hillary, while Caroline Kennedy has endorsed Barack. Will one be greater than the other? Perhaps. Will it make a difference? Not much. Barack Obama's victory statement that the campaign "is about the past versus the future" is appropriate. He should put South Carolina behind him and focus on the future, 10 days to be exact, where from the perspective of race and gender that had been exhaustively covered in South Carolina, real numbers are stacked against him. And it looks very formidable indeed!


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Kerviel's Knack for Kiting

By this time, Jerome Kerviel is running (pun Intended) neck and neck with Osama bin Laden as the world's Most Wanted Man. Unless apprehended, and if he can find his way into Afghanistan and join forces with Al Qaeda, his status will be in that position for a long time. There are similarities in the impact created by Osama and Kerviel; Osama terrorized the world with bombs, while Kerviel terrorized the global financial system (which affects citizens of the world) with fraud. He now ranks as the top most popular search request on Google, minus all the sex related ones.

The bank, Societe Generale stated that Jerome admitted guilt and he acted alone; and there was no personal gain for himself. All he did was make fraudulent bets using the banks money that European Stock Markets would rise. Well it did not. He then covered up the losses with more fraudulent accounts rather than leave the market and cut losses. His supervisors and department managers were given their walking papers. Jerome was playing the part of a big time spender, investing billions into stocks he perhaps believed would help his career, his fortunes and the bank's as well. Its quite similar to a degenerate gambler who would be at the brink of selling his soul and can't stop betting. When all hell broke loose, so did Jerome Kerviel.

He is now a hunted man, despised by his neighbors for bringing in the nosy media into their quiet lives, abandoned by his friends who have disappeared from his facebook list, and dumped by his girlfriend. His University professors say he was no genius. An ordinary student who worked hard and not a troublemaker. His office mates say that he was quiet, and worked his way up to become a trader from a nondescript job as a monitor of trades on the floor. Yet, the Chief Executive of the bank says the fraud was extraordinarily sophisticated. He certainly was a genius at kiting.

Doesn't this characterization sound like the terrorists of 9/11 as described by those who knew them? Did Jerome Kerviel intentionally defraud to create economic turbulence worldwide? We will know if and when Osama airs a video message to this effect. But how can this fraud be going on for a year without anyone noticing? How can one man run rings around a very sophisticated system and elude signals of the unauthorized amounts invested in unverified accounts? What sort of management controls exist in the second largest bank of France that would allow an employee who worked the backroom, knew the codes, mastered the control procedures, to become a trader? Is this because he was a "nice guy" quiet and honest? This is simply unforgivable stupidity. Jerome may be a fool, but he sure made a fool out of a lot of people worldwide.

Aside from a public apology, what is the culpability of Societe Generale? It seems that the bank was able to cut their losses by unloading unprecedented volumes of Jerome's futures contracts in the markets last Monday, exacerbating the already panic stricken markets to even higher levels. The banks losses are stated at $7.1 billion, but recent reports indicate that our anti-hero invested around $73.1 billion. How much of that the bank can recoup is not clear, but the losses could run up to $22 billion. For an institution that's capitalized at $52.6 billion the potential losses are enough to send the stockholders jumping from the Eiffel Tower.

Societe Generale is now forced to raise $8.2 billion in fresh capital. They would need more as the stock market continues its jittery plunge. This incident clearly illustrates how fragile the global economic and financial systems are, and how the interconnection of all countries, with its attendant benefits, can also bring about its collapse. While the decline in the financial markets was not due to the Kerviel caper, similar illegal activities executed in simultaneous fashion can bring the world to its knees.

It would be chilling to think of Al Qaeda expanding their efforts with activities such as these. Sabotage and economic terrorism could impact into panic, hunger, chaos, riots, civil strife and the decline of civilization as we know it. Coupled with their terrorist bombs at the weakened security situation, the combination would be deadly. Sophisticated systems of whatever kind are no match for human intentions and human frailties. It would be wise for those who hold power and influence to speed up the moral improvement of financial capitalism - if such an animal can be tamed.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Change in the Cast of Champions

The cast of characters in the Championship pool of the first Grand Slam Tennis Tournament has changed dramatically. The 2008 Australian Open has closed another chapter in the reign of both Men and Women's divisions who have dominated the sport. What was being touted as a Venus Williiams versus sister Serena finals is way off the baseline; and an anticipated new episode in the storied rivalry of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the Men's division is better suited for another tournament. None of these four athletes made it to the Aussie Open finals.

Maria Sharapova, the 20 year old Russian who was the youngest Wimbledon Champion in 2004 at 17, has just captured the 2008 Australian Open Women's Division title after routing Ana Ivanovic of Serbia 7-5, 6-3 for her third grand slam title. Sharapova won the US Open in 2006. Venus Williams was taken out by Ivanovic in the quarterfinal match; while Serena Williams was defeated by Jelena Jancovic , also of Serbia, a day earlier.

Number 2 ranked Rafael Nadal bowed to Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, an unseeded Frenchman and a Muhammad Ali lookalike, in their semifinal match 6-2, 6-3, 6-2. The Frenchman's feat comes off a series of injuries since 2004, causing him to play in only 8 tournaments each in 2005 and 2006. It has taken him only 5 majors to play in his first final.

Number 1 seeded Roger Federer lost his semifinal match to Novak Djokovic, another Serbian athlete, via a rout 7-5, 6-3, 7-6. The Men's Finals will be contested by Tsonga and Djokovic.

The exacting sport that it is, tennis usually retires its best players before reaching age 30. This actually began when power plays came to the fore in the era of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Since then, Tennis has always been for the young and the powerful. The 2008 Australian Open missed the booming serves of Venus, the powerful returns of Serena, the ground strokes of Nadal, and the once heralded invincibility of Federer. Younger and more talented players have taken over and the dominance of the Williams sisters, together with Nadal and Federer has come to a close. They will undoubtedly still win tournaments, but the mantle of "unbeatability" no longer threatens new players. The continuous arrival of new athletes who bring new elements into the game, on or off the court, improves the sport endlessly. This is one reason it remains a popular sport and a passport to fame and fortune.

Maria Sharapova's triumphant effort vindicates her trashing last year in the finals of this same tournament losing 6-1, 6-2 to unseeded and ranked 81 Serena Williams. The nightmare of that loss kept her going until this opportunity came. She has played and practiced with Ivanovic in the past but has never thought of playing against her in a finals match. It is possible that Ana Ivanovic is starting to recover and seek vindication for her final loss to Sharapova. That could materialize anywhere between now and next year's Australian Open. She could be hoping for a title in this same tournament or a demolishing of Sharapova, whichever comes first or sweetest.

This is the way it is in the evolution of Champions. The cycle continues...


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Recession! Restitution! Resurrection?

An unexpected swift cooperation between the Democrat led US Congress and the White House forged a stimulus package worth $150 billion for giving the economy a shot in the arm. "It is there to strengthen the middle class, create jobs and turn the economy around" said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.The same message was echoed by President George Bush from the White House. Up until late Thursday night, no official mention was made of the current US Recession, the "Slowdown" tag remained the term of careful choice.

In contrast, CNN's Richard Quest conducted a poll in Davos Switzerland among the world's top business leaders, and the "slowdown" opinions edged the "recession" camp slightly at 17-15; but doubts existed on whether the "slowdowners" were truly speaking their minds and opting instead to play it safe. Despite the Federal Reserve initiative of cutting interest rates, markets worldwide continue to experience "very volatile movements" which short term solutions may not be able to stem. The slight rally last Wednesday and Thursday provides no indication of permanent relief, and the stimulus package cannot be expected to produce a miracle.

The stimulus plan, a consumer based approach, will work in an economic slowdown to pump prime the economy through consumer spending. In a recession, it is unlikely to succeed. Besides, the plan puts money in the hands of consumers from the government coffers, where the return by way of tax generation will at most be 20% of the amount provided. The 80% will still have to be accounted for as government borrowings and would be lumped under the burgeoning budget deficit. Currently, the deficit already exceeds $163 billion, excluding budget outlays for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated to bring the deficit up to $250 billion. The Congressional Budget Office, a non-partisan organization that crunches budget data for lawmakers estimate that with the stimulus plan, the deficit can balloon to $350 billion.

The blind eye being given by the President and the US Congress to the "Recession" may be well meant, that is, to avoid panic and restore confidence.
The personal and partisan political implications however, cannot be discounted. The Republicans certainly would not want it on their term to have caused a recession; and the Democrats would not want to be blamed for preventing one or contributing to the difficulties encountered by the citizens - especially in an election year. National Security implications may also be a factor as a weak economic situation could escalate enemy attacks to its front lines. However, the pretense posture adopted by US officials and the false hopes it compels Americans to cling to, could backfire to the point where no one is to be believed and confidence in the economy and the government in general would be in tatters.

The US Recession is the first in the era of globalization, and it will have a global impact. The sub-prime mortgage crisis and housing downturn caused this situation. The money used to finance the mortgages came from savings from other nations borrowed by the US through its financial institutions. America did not save that money since they are not possessed with a saving orientation, only a spending one. And a voracious one at that. The restitution in part of taxes paid by its citizens for them to pump up the economy through spending will not repay savings obtained from other nations. Additional wealth will have to be created, and/or spending must be judiciously done and reduced.

The months between February and May will be critical for the US, since the checks will be received in late May or early June.The plan will not be in place for implementation till then, and the possibility that the amount may not be sufficient should the economy decline deeper in the interim exists; or if the plan, even if the situation fluctuates at present levels, would be enough to create a resurrection of the economy.

Six hundred dollars per taxpayer, $1200 for couples, $300 per child, and from $300 to $600 for those non-taxpayers who earned $3,000 in 2007 but paid for Social Security. One hundred sixteen million people will benefit, according to estimates. How far will this go if their debts rack up by the time the check arrives? How much will it extend the spending from June to December? How will the incoming President handle the deficit which could reach $400 billion?

There is no doubt that the package will help, but skepticism as to its effectiveness is strong. The next US President therefore must address this concern decisively and effectively. The choices would be Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and the undeclared Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. Oh God! Heaven help America!


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Heath's Hazy Hemming

The death of internationally acclaimed actor Heath Ledger remains unclear following the autopsy performed by the Medical Examiner in New York. The results are inconclusive, and determining cause of death will take 14 days. Investigators have said prescription medicines were at his bedside but no suicide note was found. A 20 dollar bill was likewise examined for possible drug residue but yielded negative results. The police say that the way the bill was folded prompted them to make the examination. There was also no indication of foul play. His family came out with a statement calling his death untimely, tragic, and accidental. No statements were released by his former girlfriend, actress Michelle Williams, whose 2 year old daughter is Heath Ledger's child.

Earlier, Heath told the New York Times: "Last week, I probably slept an average of 2 hours a night. I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted but my mind was still going."

All angles in the story of his death seem to have been hemmed in well, but details remain hazy. No doubt, the police are not discounting suicide as they are wont to do. In the absence of a suicide note, the family is assuming it was accidental, which is an explanation that would ease the pain of his passing. No words from the ex-girlfriend, and the housekeeper and masseuse have been speaking only through the police authorities.

Heath Ledger gained international acclaim for agreeing to do a daring role in Brokeback Mountain with Jake Gyllenhaal, complete with kissing and lovemaking in the raw. The movie and his performance earned him an Academy Award nomination. He was also part of Mel Gibson's The Patriot, where he obtained notice in an intense portrayal as Mel's son, even if his appearance was brief. He also earned a sort of cult following with A Knights Tale, among the younger generation of moviegoers. His career was just about to break boundaries when this tragedy struck.

What is it with Hollywood that breeds such terminal circumstances? A couple of weeks ago Brad Renfro died of an overdose of illegal drugs. Brad was considered the River Phoenix of this generation, who also died at such an early age from drug overdose. A couple of months back, Owen Wilson attempted to take his life and very nearly succeeded, purportedly because he was distraught at the turn of events in his relationship with Kate Hudson. All three of these actors were into illegal drugs, Heath was not. He was taking prescription drugs. It could be possible that the Doctor who prescribed the drug is also under investigation. Perhaps Heath was not thoroughly examined, and the dosage given to him was too much for his body's capacity to absorb; since he was suffering from insomnia for a little more than a week.

Heath Ledger had the intensity, the natural talent, the looks, and the charisma to achieve big time stardom. This whole situation of his death is so distressing not only for its untimeliness, but for its utter waste.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Chivalry's Crackling Cacophony

The greatest Knight of the 12th Century, without a doubt, was Sir William Marshal. He was the star attraction of the Tournament Scene at the time, in much the same way as today's athletic heroes are the attraction in their respective fields. Back then however, there was only one tournament. A contest that cracked ribs, broke skulls, dislocated shoulders, mangled extremities, in a violent and brutal process where the losers would be held in captivity until they could pay a substantial ransom. The nobler the Knight, the higher the price, and more profitable for the captor. Thus, being a successful fighter would ensure unimaginable wealth.

According to the author of this piece, Dominic Sutherland, the process was rarely lethal because the Knights were protected by armor. The rarity of death would most probably be a result of the speed of surrender. Jousting became popular in Medieval Europe, it originated as the Melee Tournament, a far more brutal engagement with few rules; and was supposed to be a preparation for war. (How they could be prepared for war with all the broken bones generated by the brutality is beyond comprehension. Perhaps they healed fast or hired the services of Merlin to perform some magical cure.)

The fearsome spectacle involved mass charges between Knights of opposing teams, about a hundred on each side, which saw Knights falling, horses tumbling, lancers splintering, and crowds cheering. There were supporters and even commentators who could tell who was who because of the symbols and colors that adorned the Knights. This was considered as the first European Team Sport which was began in Northern France in 1100. The event was an opportunity for young Knights to hone their skills and get bloodied in the process, a badge of honor at the time since you weren't truly a Knight until you felt your teeth crack and your blood flow. (It would be safe to assume therefore that Knights were toothless fighters who were all bark and no bite!)

Sir William Marshal was 6 ft tall, making him a giant during those times. There must have been no height standard for Knights and midgets were welcome. Marshal was intimidating as he towered above the rest, He took blows too and many tried to capture him, but no one dared to be struck by his blows and would readily surrender. Wimps!

Marshal had risen from the Tournament and became one of the richest men in the Kingdom. When King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, it was William Marshal who dealt with the Barons in his behalf. When he was in his 70's he led the English Army against the French where he applied his experiences in Tournaments. The victory saved England from French Conquest. After his death 2 years later, the 13th century Tournaments lost its popularity and was replaced by small one-on-one theatrical encounters. (The "franchise" lost its glamor, perhaps because there were no sponsors, and endorsement deals hit the ceiling. Much like today's sports icons.) :-)


Monday, January 21, 2008

Overtures of Osama's Offspring

The son of the World's most sought after criminal has spoken with CNN because he wants an end to the violence his father has inspired, violence that has victimized civilians worldwide. Omar bin Laden is a contractor whose own experience in meeting people in the course of doing business is that after learning his name, they run away. Omar, without the beard and excess fat, chillingly resembles his world renowned bomber....err...ahh...father. He spoke English which he learned from his wife, a British national, who must have embraced the Islamic faith.

According to Omar, his message was requested by other Muslims. His message: "Try to find another way to help or find your goal".

The video was fleeting but it seemed he wanted his father to put an end to the methods they have chosen to employ that create bits and pieces of rubble from otherwise structurally sound and magnificently designed edifices, strewn with chunks of human flesh. Their skill in irrigating dry parcels of land with the blood of innocent civilians that has made the world paranoid, to the point of accepting curtailment of civil liberties by so-called democratic governments must be stopped. And the wars that these efforts of his father gave birth to, indecent and unjustified as they are, which has led to the deaths of thousands of young men and cast several thousand more in funny farms must come to a halt. The impending global suffering that will accompany the recession in the US because of these senseless wars, which has already manifested itself in the stock market collapse worldwide, should be averted.

What would he have his father do? Run for King of Saudi Arabia? Or would he prefer his father seek American citizenship then launch his candidacy for President of the United States. He could join the Republicans since his old friend George Bush still holds sway there. He cannot join the Democrats since the prospect of running against Obama in the primaries will confuse the Democrat base. It's up to his father to decide, but he believes that his father's duty is to protect Muslims from attack.

Young Omar wants to initiate a Race for Peace, a multi-month horse race through North Africa in the name of Peace. Great idea. Stop the bombing and just horse around Africa. Nice. Seriously, the question is, who will they get to sponsor this event? Halliburton? Will Condoleezza Rice fire the starting gun? It might send out missiles and rockets throughout the middle east!

This is an attempt to re-brand the name Bin Laden, to link it with Peace. Old man Osama certainly would want that, but not after obliterating the world and its inhabitants to bits, then that will be his idea of Peace!


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Hispanics Hoist Hillary

The Democratic Party's Nevada primary was marred by accusations of dirty politics hurled by both the Clinton and Obama camps against each other. The bitter exchanges involved race issues that threatened to split the party's ranks rather than strengthen its unity. A struggle over the Culinary Workers Union had split the group with the officers endorsing Obama, while many of the rank and file opted for Hillary. Hillary Clinton won the primary with 51% of the popular votes, garnering 12 delegates. Obama was 6% behind at second with 45 %, but netted 13 delegates because of the areas where he bested Clinton.

A case was filed by Clinton supporters against the setting up of voting booths in casinos, which was junked by the court. Union workers went against the endorsement by their officers and openly campaigned for Hillary. Earlier, the two senators called a truce on the race issue and offered to run clean campaigns, but apparently, their field supporters were escalating the rift with efforts geared at disparaging the other camp's candidate.

Clinton won on the strength of white voters winning 52% over Obama's 34%. Women voters, comprising 59%, also went with Hillary at 51% versus 38% for Obama. The men votes were evenly split. Catholic voters (27%) chose Hillary too at 58%, while union members (30%) was evenly spread between the two candidates. What carried the day for Hillary was the Hispanic vote which gave her 66% to Obama's 33%, and they accounted for 52% of the voters. What is significant for Obama is the fact that the black voters, who made up 15%, gave an overwhelming 83% support for the Illinois Senator.

Former President Bill Clinton campaigned for his wife at the casinos, where his charisma and the economic gains contributed by his Presidency are well remembered by workers in the State. These visits aided the victory to some degree. The predominance of women is also a big factor for Hillary which is strikingly similar to the voter composition in New Hampshire.

The Democrat primary's next test will be in South Carolina where about one third of voters are black. If Barack Obama's momentum from black voters in Nevada (83%) are carried on in this State, this will pose a huge problem for Hillary. If John Edwards is able to capitalize on his popular support in South Carolina, where he won over John Kerry in 2004; Hillary may even wind up in third place again. Should Obama prevail on the strength of the black votes in South Carolina, the Democratic Party will be witnessing an alignment of forces with the Hispanics going for Clinton, while the blacks standing behind Obama. In delegate rich California, Hispanics make up 20% while blacks are at 6%. New Jersey's Hispanic and black electorate is also an area of interest to see if such a schism will take shape.

Hillary, despite winning two primaries, is credited with a total of only 36 delegates, while Obama has 38. A win in South Carolina is crucial for her since it will provide a strong impetus going into the February 5 primaries in 22 States. Obama too, needs to win in South Carolina to reset his stalled push and regain his footing after back to back losses. For Edwards, a win will give him enough reason to continue, a decisive loss will give him the exit.

The Democrat primaries are becoming more intense in an unpalatable sort of way. If this continues, it will be doubtful if they can win over the Republicans come November, as voters may tire of their bickering and begin to believe that neither of them is worth electing into office. Organization and diligence did it for Hillary in Nevada, a factor that failed for Obama. He seems more prepared for South Carolina. However, if either Hillary or Barack engage anew in politics of the underhanded kind, declaring a clean approach but allowing their supporters to use devious and deceitful tactics, these will work against their favor and the Party's as well. Today, the Democrats hold the higher moral ground over the Republicans. If their front runners continue using and throwing dirt, they will lose this privileged position in the minds of the electorate.

The Democrats should bear in mind the importance of party unity, and skepticism exists about the ability of Hillary and Barack to accomplish this. If they don't mend their ways, things could get really ugly for the Democrats, and the United States for that matter.