December 28, 2006

The Curse of Oil

She had one of those scrubbed-up, warbling voices from the Northern Plains, full of flattened vowels and Scandinavian resolve, and it made me think of Fargo. The vast backdrop of Peterbilt trucks and speedboat auctions, the envelope of fresh November snow. The family restaurants feeding the great American stomach a steady diet of hometown pride and manky coleslaw. A postcard from the Great White North.

I couldn't remember the last time I bought airline tickets over the phone, and the whole thing felt a little odd, and profoundly inefficient—like something my parents might do. But I was flying to Nigeria, and if you want to fly to Nigeria, you have to buy your ticket the old-fashioned way. Even if you found the fare online, you have to book your seat over the phone and then go down to the airport to pay for it.

"So what is it that's taking you over there, anyway?" the operator asked while we were waiting for one of her screens to come up. "Business or pleasure?"

"Business, I suppose," I said. "I'm doing some research."

Privaty Equity Firms Strip Mine German Firms

If your baby doesn't cry when you wash its hair, there's a good chance the reason can be found not far from Germany's Rhine River. Same thing if, after washing your windows, there's not a streak to be seen. Cognis, a giant chemical company headquartered near Düsseldorf, makes it happen. And not surprisingly, demand for their products is high. Indeed, in 2000 the company made a tidy profit of €109 million ($143 million) after taxes.

Half a decade later, demand for Cognis products is still high, with sales through the roof. Profits, though, are a thing of the past. In fact, in 2005, the company was deeper in the red than it had ever been. The total loss for the year was €136 million ($178 million). The company continues to limp along but is now on the auction block, likely heading for bankruptcy. Dozens of workers have been laid off.

So what happened? The answer has more to do with a recent development in the global economy than it does with Cognis management itself. In 2001, Cognis fell victim to a private equity firm, those companies trolling the world economy for lightening quick returns on their investments.

December 27, 2006

Russia Airports:Kama Sutra and feral cats

WORKING as a journalist in Russia, with its eleven time zones, its endless steppe and perpetual taiga, means spending a lot of time in the air. It involves flying in planes so creaky that landing in one piece is a pleasant surprise —then disembarking in airports so inhospitable that some visitors may want to take off again immediately.

But, if he has the strength, beyond the whine of the Tupolev engines and the cracked runways, a frequent flyer can find in Russia's airports a useful encapsulation of the country's problems and oddities. In their family resemblances, Russia's airports show how far the Soviet system squeezed the variety from the vast Russian continent; in their idiosyncrasies, they suggest how far it failed to. They illustrate how much of that system, and the mindset it created, live on, 15 years after the old empire nominally collapsed. Russia's awful, grimy, gaudy airports reveal how much hasn't changed in the world's biggest country—but also, on closer inspection, how much is beginning to.

December 26, 2006

Asian Central Banks May Spook Investors in 2007

Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- While a housing-led slump in the U.S. economy may indeed emerge as the biggest risk to Asian economies in 2007, a more immediate threat to investors will probably be posed by the region's central banks.

Policy makers in China, South Korea and India may have no option except to aggressively contain domestic liquidity and stamp out asset-price bubbles even as the U.S. Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank get closer to ending their monetary tightening cycles.

Relying on ``shock therapy,'' central banks in these countries might end up making overstretched securities -- such as Indian and Chinese equities -- more volatile than they have to be. A case in point was the bloodbath on Indian stock markets earlier this week.

In the absence of a full-blown U.S. recession, an intolerable surge in oil prices or a sudden aversion for financial risk, the global environment is likely to prove fairly stable in 2007.

December 23, 2006

In India, a boom that's bursting at the seams

NEW DELHI — An honest day's work took a good deal of subterfuge for Maneesh Mansingka.

Every morning for a month, he crept surreptitiously into the basement of a gated modern building, trying to dodge the authorities. He stayed holed up underground all day, calling clients and typing on his computer. At night, he slipped out the way he came in: through the back door, like a thief, not a successful professional.
If anyone asked, the ground floor where he normally worked was somebody's apartment. A helper even slept in his former office to keep up the ruse.

It was an embarrassing charade for Mansingka, the India director of a global commodities brokerage. But it was necessary to evade a recent government drive to shut down businesses operating in areas not officially zoned for commercial use. Mansingka's office is in a residential building he picked three years ago, after a futile search for decent commercial space in this teeming capital.


December 19, 2006

Venice Project ( Joost ) in India

Invites started going out on the 12th of Dec for additional beta testers for the Venice Project and mixed reviews are coming in. I've asked a few beta testers what their impressions were and they were generally positive, although some said that starting up and exiting the program was a bit buggy. Interface needs to be polished and the reason Indian users might not take to it is because of bandwidth requirements. I tested the program out for a few hours but my 256kb/s connection couldn't handle it. The program requires about 250MB an hour, that means 512kb/s is a bare minimum and 1MB/s might be just enough, 2MB/s would be comfortable. Until then, the video runs in jerks and fits. For people with slower connections, the program could downsample on the fly and/or buffer data. Bsnl has stated it will be offering higher speeds from Jan 1, 07 but there is no explanation whether it will be unlimited or data limits will be imposed. Bandwidth in India sucks monkey balls. Am also wondering about broadcasts in other languages, like french(france is getting fiber in many places), german, swedish, places where good quality programming is available and bandwidth is freely available.

edit- The project's name has changed to joost and it's now at However, I am not able to log in to my account on , probably due to some technical issues.
There's also a post on the joost blog about the software's bandwidth usage.

December 16, 2006

Chile: South America's most successful economy

Like it or not, Mr. Pinochet had something to do with this success. To the dismay of every economic minister in Latin America, he introduced the free-market policies that produced the Chilean economic miracle -- and that not even Allende's socialist successors have dared reverse. He also accepted a transition to democracy, stepping down peacefully in 1990 after losing a referendum.
By way of contrast, Fidel Castro -- Mr. Pinochet's nemesis and a hero to many in Latin America and beyond -- will leave behind an economically ruined and freedomless country with his approaching death. Mr. Castro also killed and exiled thousands. But even when it became obvious that his communist economic system had impoverished his country, he refused to abandon that system: He spent the last years of his rule reversing a partial liberalization. To the end he also imprisoned or persecuted anyone who suggested Cubans could benefit from freedom of speech or the right to vote.

December 13, 2006

From Hungary, for Hanukkah, From Long Ago

AS Mindel Appel showed me the contents of her freezer, my pulse began to race.

Out came her homemade kokosh cake, similar to babka. Next were shlishkes, little potato dumplings that can be tossed in sugar, breadcrumbs and butter, or stuffed with lekvar, a kind of prune preserve. Finally, she brought out a Hanukkah delicacy, the cheese Danish called delkelekh.

As a writer concentrating on Jewish food, I always get letters and e-mail asking for old recipes from Hungary. Most of what I know about these foods I have read in books. Some are still made in Hungary, and I've come across Americans who make noodles and cabbage with poppy seeds or who remember shlishkes. But with assimilation, shortcuts, the passage of time and the passing of old cooks, many of these recipes may soon be lost.

So I was thrilled to find these famous dishes in this village about 45 miles north of the George Washington Bridge. The women of the Satmar Hasidic community here have preserved delkelekh and shlishkes, and many other staples of the Hungarian Jewish kitchen.

One of the world's largest groups of Hasidic Jews, the Satmar originated in Szatmarnemeti, Hungary (now Satu Mare, Romania). There are communities in Williamsburg and Borough Park, Brooklyn; Monsey in Rockland County; and here in Orange County.


December 12, 2006

The Einsteins of Wall Street

In the spring of 1969, I got the somewhat lunatic idea of going to the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan to see the high mountains—K-2, Nanga Parbat, and the like. As it happened, I had a Pakistani colleague in physics with a connection to both the University of Islamabad and the Ford Foundation. He arranged for me to become a Ford Foundation visiting professor at the university, and before taking up my teaching duties I managed to explore all sorts of places on the frontier that are now presumably inaccessible to travelers.

In Islamabad I led a pleasant but somewhat lonely existence—until, after about a month, I heard a pair of English-speaking voices that turned out to belong to another Ford Foundation professor and his wife. This was not any old professor. It was Marshall Stone, one of the world's best mathematicians. In addition to creating, at the University of Chicago, the leading school of mathematics in the country, Stone had also been the teacher of my teacher at Harvard, George Mackey, who had interested me in the mathematical foundations of quantum theory. Now here he was, accompanied by his rather recently acquired wife Vila, a very attractive and voluble Yugoslavian.

December 11, 2006

The Media Is in Need of Some Mending

The Media Is in Need of Some Mending

December 11, 2006; Page A18

Thomas Jefferson, a better president than we've had in a very long time, penned a line back in 1787: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." By 1807, in his seventh year as president and after seven years of being subjected to severe press criticism, he wrote: "I deplore the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity and the mendacious spirit of those who write them."

You'll be relieved to know that Jefferson did remain true to his primary principle: "The press," he concluded, "is an evil for which there is no remedy. Liberty depends upon freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost." He was right then, and we are right now, to prefer a free press, however flawed, to any controlled alternative. Still, as we watched CNN flashing its pre-election logos each day -- "Broken Borders," "Broken Government," "Broken Politics," Broken Everything -- I can't help thinking the media, too, is in need of some mending.

At its best news informs and enlightens the citizens of a free society and thereby safeguards and strengthens our democracy. At its worst -- dishonest, unfair, irresponsible -- the media has potential to erode the public trust on which its own success depends and to corrode the democratic system of which it is so indispensably a part. So, let me touch on 10 current trends in the mass media that ought to disturb us.

The blurring of the lines between journalism and entertainment. Journalism that puts too high a priority on entertaining is almost destined to distort and mislead. Compounding this confusion is a diffusing definition of "journalist." When political operatives moonlight at moderating news shows, when people alternate between being political editors and political consultants, when celebrity newspeople pocket $20,000 fees speaking at corporate conventions while criticizing congressman for conflicts of interest -- we jumble public perceptions of newspeople as well as news.

The blurring of lines between news and opinion. Newspapers have a format that helps maintain the distinction. The Internet, TV and most magazines have neither that format nor that tradition. The result is a blending of news and views. The two are not ingredients to mix together for a tastier meal, they are different courses. Part of the problem here lies in fashionable new philosophies that argue there are no basic values of right and wrong, that news is merely a matter of views. It's a dangerous philosophy for our society and a dagger at the heart of genuine journalism.

The blending of news and advertising, sponsorships or other commercial relationships. The resulting porridges may be called "advertorials" or "infomercials"; they may be special sections masquerading as news, news pages driven by commercial interests, or Web pages where everything somehow is selling something. Without clear distinctions between news and advertising, readers or viewers lose confidence in the veracity of a news medium. And advertisers lose the business benefit of an environment of trust.

The problems and pitfalls inherent in pack journalism. Individually, most reporters are decent, dedicated, fair-minded people. But the press, en masse, tends to lose its common sense and its sense of fairness and independence and what we see all too often is the spectacle of a pack of hounds in pursuit of a quarry. We frequently see this phenomenon in political reporting, where the faintest whiff of scandal, or even of weakness, can send the pack in pursuit. At its worst, the pack, not finding a real problem, proclaims the "perception" of one and this perception becomes self-fulfilling.

The issue of conflict and context. On most issues most Americans are not on polar extremes. On abortion, for example, most seek a sensible center. Where is that center reflected in media coverage that mainly portrays rabid feminists or irate pro-life activists? Balance is not achieved by the talk show format of two extremists yelling at each other. And how many of us recognize our own communities from their depiction on local TV news shows -- a nonstop montage of mayhem, murder, rape, arson, child molestation and more?

The exaggerated tendency toward pessimism. Just look back a few years over much of the media coverage of "American competitiveness." All those news magazine covers on the coming "Japanese Century." And along with it, all the pessimism about the ability of U.S. industry to compete globally. It was nonsense. Similarly, it's one thing -- and an appropriate one -- for the press to probe particular instances of political corruption. It's quite another thing to jump to the cynical conclusion that our political process, and all politicians, are corrupted -- that "they all do it." They don't, and they aren't. Skepticism and criticism are essential to the media's role; reflexive pessimism is not.

The growing media fascination with the bizarre, the perverse and the pathological -- John Mark Karr journalism. Such so-called journalism helps instantly legitimize crackpot ideas, deviant behavior, or alleged victimization in our society. My point is not to argue for "good news" vs. "bad news," but to ask whether much of this amounts to news at all?

Social orthodoxy, or political correctness. These are reflected in a media whose job is not to parrot prevailing fashions, but to question, probe and thereby challenge them. Businessmen are not, by definition, greedy, and environmentalists, by definition, saintly. Third World poverty is not, by definition, a result of overpopulation as opposed to inane economic policies. And so on.

The media's short attention span. As the press hops from Baghdad to Beirut, Natalee Holloway to Valerie Plame, Super Bowls to Super Tuesdays, it justifiably can blame some combination of the nature of the news and the short attention span of the public. The public, meanwhile, bombarded and bewildered can blame a fickle and shallow press. There are too many instant celebrities. Too many two-day crises. Too many "defining moments" from people in search of instant history. In a world where everything is considered critical, nothing needs to be taken very seriously.

The matter of power. The press is at least partially responsible for greater public skepticism toward traditional institutions in America. But the truth, not lost on our public, is that the press is a large and powerful institution, too: "60 Minutes" is more powerful than almost all of the subjects it exposes. This newspaper, arguably, has more influence on national economic policy than do most corporations. Networks are owned by giant industrial corporations, magazines by entertainment conglomerates, and most newspapers by national chains. Given these realties, we cannot plausibly pretend to be a David out there smiting Goliaths and expect the public to believe it.

Mr. Kann, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, is chairman of Dow Jones.

December 6, 2006

As Alternative Energy Heats Up, Environmental Concerns Grow

Crop of Renewable 'Biofuels'
Could Have Drawbacks;
Fires Across Indonesia
Palm-Oil Boom Ignites Debate
December 5, 2006; Page A1

PONTIANAK, Indonesia -- Investors are pouring billions of dollars into "renewable" energy sources such as ethanol, biodiesel and solar power that promise to reduce the world's reliance on petroleum. But exploiting these alternatives may produce unintended environmental and economic consequences that offset the expected benefits.

Here on the island of Borneo, a thick haze often encloses this city of 500,000 people. The cause: forest fires that have blazed across the island. Many of them were set to clear land to produce palm oil -- a key ingredient in biodiesel, a clean-burning diesel fuel alternative.

Patrick Barta
At a new oil-palm plantation, the hillsides have been cleared and terraced.

The bluish smoke is at times so dense that it leaves the city dark and gloomy even at midday. The haze has sometimes closed Pontianak's airport and prompted local volunteers to distribute face-masks on city streets. >From July through mid-October, Indonesian health officials reported 28,762 smog-related cases of respiratory illness across the country.

"I feel it in my breath when I breathe," said Imanuel Patasik, a 26-year-old delivery man, as he sat in one of Pontianak's many open-air coffee shops on a recent evening. When the smoke is really bad, he wears a mask to work, but still wakes up the next morning feeling sick. "It's part of life here," he sighed.

Seasonal rains have helped quell the fires over the past few weeks. But the miasma of smoke from Borneo and the island of Sumatra -- an annual phenomenon that blankets large parts of Southeast Asia in smog -- underscores a troubling dark side of the world's alternative-energy boom. Among other problems, the fires in Indonesia spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, experts say. In doing so, they exacerbate the very global-warming concerns biofuels are meant to alleviate.

Such side effects are not an isolated problem. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada and elsewhere, forests are being slashed for new energy-yielding crops or other unconventional fuels. In India, environmental activists say, water tables are dropping as farmers try to boost production of ethanol-yielding sugar.

"Let's be brutally frank: [The push for alternative fuels] is going to cause significant changes for the environment," says Sean Darby, an equities analyst and expert on alternative energy companies at Nomura International in Hong Kong. He is most worried about the strain on water resources caused by accelerated crop production. Water, he says, is "just as precious" as oil.

Some experts are also concerned that crops for biofuels will compete with other farmland, possibly driving up global costs of basic food production.

It's not clear how serious these problems will become -- or whether they eventually will be resolved through new technologies and stricter environmental measures. Proponents of alternative energy, including some palm oil industry executives, say the dangers are exaggerated and are outweighed by the benefits new fuels promise.

"We're unfairly targeted," says M.R. Chandran, former chief executive of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association. He contends that the timber industry and local farmers are much to blame for destroying Indonesia's forests.

The alternative energy field "is almost like the Internet in terms of the pace of how fast all this is changing," says Chris Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute, an environmental organization. He believes that new technologies could help resolve some concerns over collateral damage. One of the hottest, for example, is called cellulosic ethanol, which uses different kinds of waste -- including municipal garbage -- to create fuel.

In the U.S., questions about corn-based ethanol are swirling in academic and agricultural circles, in part because of the work of a Cornell University professor. David Pimentel, who teaches environmental policy, has long held doubts about the fuel's value. He argues that expanding corn production for biofuels would deplete water resources and pollute soils with added fertilizer and chemicals. It would also require huge volumes of traditional energy for farming equipment and ethanol-conversion facilities -- a toll that could nullify gains from the less-polluting fuel produced.

Other studies, including reports by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have reached much more optimistic conclusions and have criticized Mr. Pimentel's methodology.

Big Implications for Business

Critiques of alternative energy -- even if they prove to be exaggerated -- could have big implications for business. Last year, investors globally poured a record $49 billion into energies such as solar power, ethanol and biodiesel, according to New Energy Finance, a London-based firm that specializes in analyzing renewable energies. That was a 60% increase from the previous year.

But commercializing many alternative fuels relies on political support in the form of government subsidies or tax incentives. So the rise of local resistance could jeopardize the new fuels' economic viability.

This is particularly true for palm oil, a once-mundane commodity whose price has climbed about 31% so far this year. The spike is partly attributable to demand for biofuels.

In October, a European Parliament committee recommended a ban on all biofuel made from palm oil, citing fears that the crop encourages deforestation in tropical countries. In Indonesia, activists helped block an $8 billion Chinese-backed project that would have created one of the world's largest palm-oil plantations.

And last month, one of Britain's largest power companies, RWE npower, a subsidiary of the German power giant RWE AG, said it would abandon a project that was to use several hundred thousand tons of palm oil a year to generate power. An environmental group, Friends of the Earth, had complained that the project would contribute to unsustainable global demand for palm oil, contributing to rain-forest destruction in South East Asia. RWE npower said it dropped the project because it couldn't secure an adequate supply of sustainably grown palm oil.

Most consumers still think of palm oil mainly as a source of cooking oil. The oil is squeezed from bunches of red fruit that grow on oil palms, primarily in Malaysia and Indonesia. But the oil can also be processed to make fuel. Then it's mixed with conventional diesel to form a hybrid energy source -- for instance, 80% regular diesel and 20% biofuel -- that can be pumped directly into fuel tanks.

Biodiesel offers lots of upsides. Renewable crops such as palm oil reduce the need for fossil fuels such as petroleum whose supplies are finite. It also burns more cleanly than carbon-based liquid fuel, releasing fewer of the gases thought to cause global warming.

As oil prices have surged, a number of companies, including Chevron Corp., have announced plans to build or invest in biodiesel plants. In a recent report, Credit Suisse analysts said there's enough refining capacity under development to produce as much as 20 million metric tons of fuel annually by late 2008. That capacity, more than twice that of today's levels, would "easily soak up" all the world's available palm oil -- creating even more demand for plantations.

Indonesian authorities hope to capitalize on such demand to bring economic growth to impoverished regions. The government is offering low-interest loans for plantation companies, with a goal of adding 3.7 million acres of new plantations over the next five years, an area more than half the size of New Hampshire. Officials maintain this can be done on designated land areas without causing widespread environmental damage.

Different Outcome

But what's happening on the ground in Borneo suggests a different outcome. Among the world's most fabled islands, Borneo -- which is divided between Indonesia and Malaysia -- is considered by environmentalists to be one of the last great tropical wildernesses. It's home to rare and unusual species, including the wild orangutan, the clouded leopard and the Sumatran rhinoceros.

It's also home to some of the world's last headhunters. The indigenous Dayaks resurrected the grisly practice as recently as the late 1990s in interethnic clashes. Some Dayaks still live in villages that can only be reached by river, and sleep in wooden "longhouse" buildings on stilts.

A fire at this oil-palm plantation near Pontianak, Indonesia, made some local villagers sick.

In the 1800s, Dutch and British traders began carving up parts of the island to produce rubber and other commodities. Later, Malaysian and Indonesian timber barons devastated millions of acres of forest logging tropical hardwoods. Today, only a little more than half of Borneo's once-ubiquitous forest cover remains, according to WWF, the global conservation organization.

Now, the palm-oil boom threatens what's left. In West Kalimantan, a province along the western coast, the palms cover about 988,000 acres or more, up from less than 37,000 acres in 1984. Fleets of orange and mustard-colored trucks ply the province's few paved roads, ferrying the oil to river ports.

The plantations have meant jobs and opportunities for many Dayak families. Some have even taken ownership stakes in the operations.

As residents are discovering, though, the spreading plantations have deleterious effects. They can alter water-catchment areas, destroy animal habitats and contribute to the months-long bouts of haze that spreads hundreds of kilometers across Southeast Asia.

As fires burn deep into the dry peat soil beneath Indonesia's forests, centuries of carbon trapped in the biomass are released into the atmosphere. A study presented last month at a U.N. Climate Change Conference in Nairobi showed that Indonesia is the world's third-biggest carbon emitter behind the U.S. and China, when emissions from fires and other factors are considered.

"Stopping these fires could be one way of getting rid of some significant carbon emissions to the atmosphere," says Susan Page, a senior lecturer at Britain's University of Leicester who studies carbon emissions in Southeast Asia.

A ship on the Kapuas River, in the Indonesian section of the island of Borneo, is shrouded by smoke from forest fires.

To be sure, palm-oil plantations aren't the only cause of deforestation and smoke on Borneo. Loggers have degraded huge swathes of forest. And indigenous residents have long practiced their own form of slash-and-burn agriculture that involves setting fires to clear fields for planting.

But Indonesian environmental officials say plantation companies are exacerbating the problem, and some palm-oil executives concede their industry is partly to blame. Often, companies hack down the trees, leaving behind a mass of debris that must be removed before they can plant oil palms. The cheapest and easiest way is simply to torch it.

One new oil-palm plantation, four hours by dirt road from Pontianak, offers a glimpse of the fallout from the flames.

The plantation stretches across some 2,740 acres and features a series of blackened and largely bare hills. Charred stumps stick up from the soil and blistered tree trunks litter the ground. In the distance, a wall of misty jungle marks the border of the property.

Villagers nearby say smoke and flames from fires at the site destroyed fruit and rubber trees on which they relied. They also made many people in the area sick. One villager began acting like he was possessed and was placed in a cage where he remained for weeks, the village chief says.

Nearby, on a ridge overlooking the property, a man in a floppy sun hat who identifies himself as the plantation manager says he didn't know who started the fires. "We are one of the victims," says the man, Kong Tamcheng.

Mr. Kong says his employer, an Indonesian company called Incasi Raya Group, has a strict no-burning policy. He suggests the fire might have been started by a careless worker flicking cigarette butts, or by "interested parties" out to "smear" the company's reputation.

But Untad Dharmawan, director of environmental impact assessment for West Kalimantan, says Indonesian authorities are investigating nine palm-oil companies for illegal burning, including Incasi Raya Group and its manager, Mr. Kong. He displays a dossier of photos of the Incasi Raya site, adding that his department has witnesses with evidence the company started the fires.

Phone calls to Incasi Raya's office in Padang, Indonesia went unanswered.

Indonesian officials say they're doing the best they can to fight the fires and prevent illegal forest-clearing. Among other tactics, they hired two giant Russian planes to drop "water bombs" and launched projects to hand out water pumps to local villagers.

But they're hamstrung by tight budgets and the logistical difficulties of policing such a vast area with few roads. At best, "we can just minimize the spread" of fires, laments Mr. Dharmawan, the provincial environmental official.

Palm-oil companies, meanwhile, have joined with environment organizations, energy companies and others to set up a group known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil that plans to certify plantation companies that follow guidelines to minimize ecological damage.

Back in Borneo, Tony Hartono, head of a local plantation association in West Kalimantan, says he still believes biodiesel derived from palm oil will play a big role in solving the world's energy problems. After all, "it's a renewable energy," he says. "It's our future."

---- Puspa Madani in Jakarta and Celine Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article

December 4, 2006

The Swarm of the Super-Applicants

How are these for alarming statistics: With more students than ever applying to college—a full 1.2 million more last year than in 2000—not even flawless SAT scores can open doors at Harvard, which rejects one in four applicants with a perfect 2400. Is your kid ranked first in his class? So are some 36,000 others: Last year, Penn and Duke rejected about 60 percent of the valedictorians who applied. If you know anyone in high school (or preschool) you're already aware that the annihilative admissions climate has spawned a new hyperspecies: the college super-applicant. But do so many hours spent filling in practice circles or hunching over petri dishes really work? We recruited some of the area's most credentialed college hopefuls, who gamely volunteered to have their grade-point averages, standardized test scores, after-school pursuits, and academic awards reviewed by Katherine Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, a school-admissions consulting company. Cohen assessed their strengths and weaknesses and made a guess where each student will get in. She stresses, however, that this is only a partial picture; she'd need to see transcripts, essays, AP course load, and written recommendations to make an accurate evaluation. Disclaimer: The following material may not be suitable for anxiety-prone high-school students.


December 1, 2006

Kramnik overlooks mate in one!

Damn, that sucks.

Blunders in chess – Kramnik wasn't the first
01.12.2006 Still mystified by Vladimir Kramnik's blunder in game two of his match against Deep Fritz? After our attempts at an explanation of this extraordinary blackout we return to the subject (with apologies to Vladimir) with opinions by our readers and with a collection of drastic blunders by other world champions and top players. Take comfort.

Kramnik played 3...b5 in the Queen's Gambit Accepted and equalized the chances with black by move 17, The key move of 18...c5 forced the white to fight for the comfortable position. Backed up by enormous calculating potential, Fritz created some tactical threats but Kramnik always kept things under control. The Russian could have made a draw several times, but he went on in hope of winning chances.

On move 33, Kramnik captured on c1, but that move contains a fatal error. Black's queenside pawns would still give him chances. Instead, Kramnik played the move 34...Qe3, having overlooked the mate in one to great pleasure of Fritz operators. It was one of the most unbelievable blunders ever seen at that level of chess and the first one in Kramnik's career.

The Puzzle of Parisian Partisanship

Of all large European nations, France is the country where political leaders are most vocally opposed to capitalism and globalization--at least in theory.

Second in an occasional series on European politics.

In 1997, the year in which the United States was in the midst of a spectacular capitalist-economic boom, France was under the leadership of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin of the Socialist Party. "Center-right" President Jacques Chirac, formally Jospin's superior, was licking his wounds after a bitter electoral rout. Many free-market observers looked at Jospin's background and shuddered in fear of what they thought was to come.

In his youth, Jospin had been an avid Trotskyite and even a member of the Lambert Group in the Internationalist Communist Organization (OCI), an organization which desired, in communist fashion, to bring about the dictatorship of the proletariat and social justice. As late as 1979, at the French Socialist Party Congress, Jospin drew a clear line when he stated unequivocally that "the goal of the PS [Parti Socialiste] is not to modernize or moderate capitalism but [to] replace it with socialism."

Venezuelan High Life: Bulletproof BMW And a Vote for Chávez

Oil Tycoon Ruperti Supports
Socialist's Re-Election;
Gift of Bolívar's Pistols
December 1, 2006; Page A1

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Most of Hugo Chávez's supporters live in shantytowns and count on subsidies from the government. Most of his opponents live in middle-class apartment buildings and mansions in leafy neighborhoods and are horrified by the likelihood of a Chávez victory in Sunday's presidential election.
Then there are people like shipping tycoon Wilmer Ruperti, who tools around town in a chauffeur-driven bulletproof BMW and who owes much of his fortune to the Chávez government. Along with other, well-connected businessmen, known as Boliburgueses -- Bolivarian bourgeoisie -- Mr. Ruperti is rooting for Chávez's re-election.
At his office a few days ago, the 46-year-old Mr. Ruperti, a gregarious, bearlike man with thinning, red-tinted hair and a thick gold chain, pored over a poll he says he commissioned for about $60,000 that showed Mr. Chávez winning comfortably. "I agree with the president," said Mr. Ruperti. "He is the only person who has identified himself with the poor."
As an oil trader, Mr. Ruperti hit the big time in 2003 when he came to the rescue of Mr. Chávez's government, which was then fighting to survive a strike that had shut down the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA. With the country running out of gasoline, Mr. Ruperti used his fleet of tankers to unload fuel oil in Venezuelan ports, showing frightened insurers that they were secure. That opened the way for other tankers to bring in gasoline, which Mr. Ruperti bought and then resold to PDVSA, breaking the back of the strike. A grateful Mr. Chávez decorated Mr. Ruperti with the army's Star of Carabobo medal.
Now Mr. Ruperti embodies the contradictions of Chávez-era Venezuela -- a country that is dedicated to socialist redistribution of wealth, but which is also enjoying an oil-backed capitalist boom that is further dividing rich and poor. Eighteen-year-old whiskeys are the rage, and Hummers and top-of-the-line SUVs clog the streets of Caracas, while four out of 10 Venezuelans survive on $2 a day or less.
These days, Mr. Ruperti, whose father, an Italian immigrant who worked as a chef in restaurants here, cuts a wide swath in Caracas society. Last year, he sponsored the event of the season -- a charity concert by tenor Luciano Pavarotti, which succeeded in bringing together the Boliburgueses and the anti-Chávez grand dames of Caracas society. A year earlier, he paid $1.7 million at a New York auction for a pair of ornate French pistols made by Napoleon's gunsmith in 1804 for Simón Bolívar, Venezuela's independence hero. Caracas gossip had it that Mr. Ruperti planned to present the pistols to Mr. Chávez, who is so enamored of Bolívar that he changed Venezuela's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to honor his hero.
"Those pistols had to be in the hands of Venezuelans," says Mr. Ruperti, who says he plans to leave them to his children. "We have to rescue the Venezuelan-ness of our people."
His critics hold up Mr. Ruperti's business practices as an example of what has gone wrong in the country. This year, Transparency International, the anticorruption watchdog, lists Venezuela as No. 141 out of 163 countries it surveys in its ranking of "perceived levels of corruption."
Last year, a congressional commission dominated by members of Mr. Chávez's party looked into allegations that Mr. Ruperti made millions from double-billing the state oil company for gasoline shipments during the strike at PDVSA when the company's accounting system broke down. The commission also investigated whether Mr. Ruperti received sweetheart contracts to ship asphalt with PDVSA's Citgo subsidiary in the U.S. The commission cleared the oil trader. "Ruperti performed vital services for PDVSA, and he was paid for them," says Jesús Alberto García, the panel's president.
But the saga continues. Earlier this year, Mr. Chávez's office sent a letter to Congress asking lawmakers to take another look at the controversy. Among the issues the president's office wants investigated: whether PDVSA lost $30 million due to double billing and bogus invoices by Mr. Ruperti, and whether he used "company names without their knowledge for the fraudulent acquisition of fuel." Mr. Ruperti denies any wrongdoing.
So far, the controversy hasn't had much effect on his business. He now runs a 19-ship tanker fleet and says he plans to start a maritime bank. Mr. Ruperti is also investing $26 million in a cable-television station he wants to turn into a 24-hour news operation. "I'm going to call it Channel I, I for intelligence, impartiality and information," he says, as the small TV screen in his BMW, tuned to the government station, silently shows President Chávez exuberantly speaking to followers.
But earlier this year, Venezuela's revolutionary contradictions took a bad bounce for Mr. Ruperti, an avid golfer, when Caracas's Chavista mayor started legal procedures to seize the Caracas Country Club's golf course and replace it with public housing. The matter is still in court. "My heart tells me I don't agree with that," says Mr. Ruperti, who has founded a golf school for children from the city's barrios.
For many Venezuelans, Caracas's Dolce Vita of premium wines, premium whiskeys and premium cars brings to mind Venezuela's first big oil boom during the 1970s, a time remembered as the years of "Saudi Venezuela."
Then, President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who nationalized foreign oil companies to create PDVSA in 1976, favored a clique of friends, known as the "12 Apostles," who made enormous fortunes through government contracts. Now, says Ben Amí Fihman, the editor of a magazine called "Exceso," or Excess, "the 12 Apostles have become the 40 thieves."
Today Caracas is as divided as it was during the days of the oil strike. Mr. Ruperti's name heads the list of "collaborators of the regime" posted on the Internet by "Democratic Soldiers," an organization of anti-Chávez officers purged from the armed forces. "Keep the names ... and remember them for when it becomes necessary," the list says, adding information about Mr. Ruperti's residence, friends, business dealings, and where his private jet is parked.
"A lot of people think I'm a devil, but it's not true," says Mr. Ruperti. "I sleep easily at night and morally I'm satisfied." Nevertheless, Mr. Ruperti takes no chances. He rides in Caracas's traffic-choked streets in his armor-plated car, accompanied by two South Korean bodyguards, Yong Lee and Rim Paek. Mr. Ruperti says the Koreans are tae kwon do masters who can brain an assailant with a butter knife at a distance of 20 meters.
"If one of my enemies comes in here tonight, I'll have them show you," he joked before sitting down to dinner at the best Italian restaurant in Caracas. After dinner, he left the restaurant through a back door. "For safety's sake," he said.