Many years ago, I was a writer for a writer. Harry Barba was an American author born in Connecticut in 1922, and had quite a distinguished career. He had a master’s from Harvard and multiple postgraduate degrees. He was an English professor, a visiting lecturer, a developer of writers’ conferences, a consultant to publishing houses and a founder of his own.
By the time I met him in 2004, he was of ill health, confined to an oxygen tank in his home, and cared for by his lovely wife, Marian. He was looking for a writer who could produce reviews of his novels, and I became that writer. When I would visit, he would sit in his room surrounded by mounds of yellow legal pads with writing scribbled all over them. I would ask questions, he would write his responses on a yellow pad, and I would take them home with me, consulting his thoughts as I reviewed his books.
During our time together, I produced several reviews and perhaps I will post one or two here. But first, here’s a little poem in his memory.
Endless pads of paper
“One world diverse and harmonious,”
Reads the pen that Harry Barba gave me
In Harry and Marian’s house, so cluttered
With stacks of envelopes, manuscripts and paintings.
A long blue tube full of oxygen, I presume,
Stretches down the stairs to a machine,
Like those also abound in the upstairs room,
where Harry sits with Kleenex and endless yellow pads
He flashes a wide smile upon my entrance,
As if I had come from a world he used to love,
But could no longer take part in.
Maybe he looked at me vicariously,
Maybe he was just happy to see me,
Someone interested in fiction.
Once, Harry rode through Turkey on a dollar a day.
He was with a man from the Netherlands,
A man very particular with his money,
Counting every cent though it cost little to travel.
The Turkish guide called him a “thrifty Dutchman,”
And Harry called him a “nice guy.”
He lived in a bazaar in Syria, was close with the people,
Had a wife who was at home in the Netherlands, having a baby.
Like “Bruce, the Remembrance of Things Past,”
Homeric epithets have come naturally to Harry.
Maybe it’s because of his asthmatic background, he says.
These articles were first published in 2014 in The Financialist
We've already got wristbands that measure how many calories you’ve burned, how many steps you’ve taken and how many hours you’ve slept. Now there’s a wearable device to tell you how much sun exposure you’ve had – and when it may be time to duck into the shade.
Paris-based tech company Netatmo recently unveiled “June,” a device that claims to track both UV intensity as well as the level of cancer-causing rays a wearer is absorbing in real time, information it relays to an iPhone app. (The wristband is not yet compatible with other smartphones.)
June promises to send users notifications about when it’s time to apply more sunblock and even calculates the recommended maximum daily sun exposure based on the user’s skin type.
Aimed at women, June resembles a large diamond and can be attached to a slim leather band or worn as a brooch. And although it may look like a pretty piece of jewelry, at $99, it doesn’t cost as much as one.
The “Financialization of Gold”
Every once in a while you run across a data point that stops you in your tracks. A recent Credit Suisse report “Commodities Advantage: Rumbling Along” highlights a gap in 2013 of 290 metric tons between reported mainland demand for gold from normal industrial and commercial applications and the actual imports.
Credit Suisse analysts say at least some of the missing gold has been absorbed by its increasing “financialization” and its use as a “mechanism for onshore/offshore transfer of capital and as straightforward loan collateral.” In plainer language, it means rather large amounts of gold are being used in ways that might otherwise provide plot lines for Hollywood thrillers in an effort to evade government rules.
How much space does that much gold take up? Less than you might think. Only about half of an industrial-sized 30-cubic yard dumpster. Still, even a fraction of that would fill a lot of briefcases.
This article was first published in July 2005.
The National Institute of Statistics (INE) has announced the creation of the Social Well-being Index, which it says will more accurately measure socio-economic levels of the population through inclusion of the impact of government social programs. Yet, critics call the new statistic politically motivated and argue that a lack of transparency could hinder its credibility and effectiveness.
In 2000, Venezuela joined 188 other nations in signing the Millennium Declaration, a United Nations pact promising to cut poverty and hunger in half by 2015. However, after assessing the country’s progress five years later, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reported in June that Venezuela’s fight against poverty had experienced a "backward movement" and that extreme poverty levels had risen between 1990 and 2004.
The government responded by sending Carlos Alvarado, vice minister of social development, to make an official complaint at the United Nations in early July. “Nowhere does (the report) mention our fundamental policy: the social missions—which makes us think that it is an intentional omission," Alvarado said.
Striving to make sure social aid is not omitted from national poverty statistics, the National Institute of Statistics (INE) announced in late June that it would launch the new Social Well-being Index (IBS, after its initials in Spanish) in the second semester of this year. Proponents say the index will be more comprehensive than current studies, which they say leave out non-cash benefits such as free education, free health care and food subsidies.
Yet, some critics see the new index as a political move to shine a favorable light on government programs. They also are concerned that the INE has yet to issue reports detailing how the new index will be calculated, arguing that this opacity could make it harder to use the index as a yardstick to improve social conditions.
Three’s a crowd…and four?
INE president Elías Eljuri argues that social benefits allow some citizens to live more prosperously even as their income remains unchanged. Although Eljuri turned down repeated interview requests, he said in a press release that the new Social Well-being Index would incorporate nine variables, expanding “the collection of socio-economic data that reflect the social investment realized by the government.” The components include access to hygienic services, access to electricity, the infantile survival rate, possession of a refrigerator, possession of a stove, access to all educational levels, household income and employment.
Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C. (and notoriously pro-Chávez) is a proponent of the new study. In a telephone interview, he called it “essentially meaningless” to measure poverty without including the non-cash income of the poor. “With subsidized food now reaching 46% of the population, [subsidized food stores] alone could easily push millions of people over the official poverty line that is based on cash income only,” Weisbrot said.
A preliminary study revealed that the new Social Well-being Index remained between 0.81 and 0.87 points on a scale of 0 to 1 between the years of 1995 and 2004. A reading of 0.8 translates to a “satisfactory” standard of living, with less than 0.5 considered “inadequate.” Like other indices, the IBS shows that the well being of the population rose steadily between 1997 and 2001, dropped between 2001 and 2003 due to the national strikes, and then rose again during economic recuperation in 2004.
Despite the INE’s promotion of the new index, the institute already publishes three poverty indices, two of which incorporate non-cash indicators. One is a purely income-based index called Línea de Pobreza, which measures household and individual income and the cost of goods in the market. Households that cannot satisfy basic consumption needs are considered poor, while those that cannot afford essential food purchases are considered to be in extreme poverty.
In the Unsatisfied Basic Needs index, households that do not fulfill one of five basic needs are considered under the poverty level, while those registering two or more are deemed to be in extreme poverty. The five needs include an adequately constructed house, three people or less per sleeping room, housing with access to potable water and/or toilets, children between the ages of 7 and 12 attending school and three or less people dependent on one person financially.
According to 2004 INE statistics, the Línea de Pobreza index concluded that 53.1% of the population was in poverty while the Basic Unsatisfied Needs index calculated only 29.6%. These figures suggest that a significant number of households with income under the poverty line were indeed above the poverty threshold when it came to health conditions and access to education.
The Human Development index (HDI) is a more recently developed study published both by the INE and the United Nations Development Program. It assimilates three fundamental factors: health, education and income. Venezuela currently finds itself in the “Medium-High” level. On a scale of 0 to 1, the country rose from 0.69 in 1998 to 0.78 in 2001. It then fell to 0.76 in 2002 and 2003—the years of the national strikes—and then climbed to 0.80 in 2004.
An angle from La Católica
The INE argues that the new IBS index will allow for more accurate economic and social development planning. But Luis Pedro España, director of the Institute for Economic and Social Research (IIES) at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello argued in an interview that the government was promoting the new index because the Human Development Index was no longer reporting attractive results.
“If the executive branch did not qualify as ‘neo-liberal’ or ‘imperialist’ social indicators when they are not to their liking, the initiative of the INE to construct an Index of Social Well-being would be none other than a topic of discussion among technicians, planners and experts on the issue,” España said. “But this is not the case.”
España also argued that the use of so many variables forced experts to pick apart the index to determine which factors were responsible for general trends. “[The IBS] will have the virtue of collecting diverse aspects of the Venezuela social dynamic, but like all aggregate indicators it will have the defect of not knowing what is being measured,” España said. This “defect” would make it difficult to use the index as a benchmark for social improvement, he said.
He also cast doubts on the IBS because he said the government had not yet issued formulas showing how the index is calculated. In addition, Venezuela would not be able to compare its IBS figures with other countries because it was a uniquely Venezuelan index, he said.
The IIES director wrote off government claims that the new index will vary much from current statistics. First, he argued that not enough time had passed to measure the true effect of the missions on the population. Secondly, he claimed that the missions would not yield the results that the government expected.
España said it was “difficult to know whether (the missions) are working or not” because of a lack of financial reports or measured results and objectives issued by the government. He also cited an INE report that the national infant mortality rate rose by 5% between 2001 and 2003. Others argue, however, that the true impact of the missions cannot be determined until more recent figures are published, especially since the reach of the programs has been intensified in the past two years.
The Datos outlook
Like España, Edmond Saade, president of the private research company Datos Information Resources, said in an interview that it would be helpful for the INE to release specific and quantifiable information about how the IBS index is calculated. He explained, however, that the extent to which poverty indices could prove social programs successful depended on one’s objectives.
The Chávez government’s aim, he said, was to create a more equal society and to pay more attention to the marginal classes. A socio-economic study by Datos showed that the government was successful in this regard, he contended, because average income for the lowest class—or “E” class—increased by 30% between 2003 and 2004.
“There is no question but that living standards have improved,” he said. “There are more people in that class now, but they are happier.” He also pointed out that the average Venezuelan income—approximately $220 a month—was much higher than the average Latin American income, which is at $130 a month.
On the other hand, if the objective was to improve social mobility and achieve middle class values, recent results did not paint a triumphant picture of the missions, Saade said. Datos found that the E class had grown from 52% to 58% of the population between 1998 and 2004. The study also showed that the top three classes (ABC+) diminished from 28% of the population in 1984 to only 4% in 2004. The C- class accounted for 15% in 2004.
The Datos president underscored that his company was completely apolitical and merely strove to serve its clients with accurate data. In so doing, it has not changed its methodology in the 50 years it has been in existence, leading many analysts to consider its indices as more comprehensive than the government’s. Datos’ research spans 27 cities, measures over 3,000 commercial outlets catering to all socio-economic levels, and samples the consumption habits of 5.5 million Venezuelans per month.
Saade did maintain that the Poverty Line index was “good as an indicator,” but said it was too limited to stand alone as comprehensive socio-economic study. While income is one fundamental factor in Datos’ calculations, 51 other components combine to complete the aggregate. The fact that almost 50% of working Venezuelans and 90% of the E class participated in the informal economy made precise income difficult to measure, Saade said. He also contended that measuring consumption habits was essential in order to account for higher income people who did not save money and therefore could not improve their living standards.
An opaque trendThe new IBS index is not the only example of state efforts to produce economic calculations that reflect social programs. The Central Bank (BCV) has recently incorporated rising sales at government-subsidized Mercal grocery stores into its inflation calculations, having a decelerating effect on the rate. This is nothing new: since 1997, the bank’s methodology has involved generating a weighted average price for each good based on the volume sold at each kind of outlet, including supermarkets, street sales, the informal economy and, now, Mercal.
Saade saw nothing wrong with the move, as long as the figures were calculated correctly. He noted that prices at the subsidized stores are 20% to 40% lower than commercial outlets in a country where 60% to 65% of marginal class income is spent on food. “This is a godsend for them to save,” Saade said.
Concern arose among critics, however, because the BCV repeated assurances that no changes had been made to the calculations before acknowledging that it had gradually adjusted its inflation gauge to account for Mercal. Providing more transparency, then, is the government’s challenge—if it wants to dampen criticism and ensure the credibility of its data.
MYTH: Earthquakes only happen on the west coast of the U.S., so I don’t need to prepare if I live elsewhere.
FACT: False. Earthquakes can strike anywhere, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In fact, 45 states and territories in the U.S. are at moderate to very high risk of earthquakes. The 2011 earthquake in Virginia was proof of this. So you want to prepare no matter where you live.
[Source: U.S. Geological Survey]
MYTH: Get in a doorway when an earthquake occurs.
FACT: Years ago, you may have been taught to get in a doorway during an earthquake. But doorways aren’t any stronger than the rest of a structure. Plus, they don’t provide protection from flying or falling objects. It’s better to get under a steady piece of furniture and hold on.
MYTH: Run outside if you are indoors.
FACT: Running outside could expose you to flying objects and you could be hit. Many injuries occur when people try to move from one place to another. Here’s what you should do instead:
[source: Red Cross, ready.gov]
MYTH: The worst is over. It’s time to assess damage and clean up.
FACT: Don’t assume that you’re now safe. Aftershocks can occur minutes after the first quake ends. While they’re usually not as strong, they can cause additional damage and injuries. Drop, Cover and Hold On again in the case of aftershocks.
[source: Red Cross, ready.gov]
Remember “Gangnam Style”? Of course you do! Shortly after the video went viral in 2012, I sat down with South Korean pop star Psy in L.A. to talk about his newfound fame in the U.S. I found him to be very nice, and he even had me take my shoes off at the door.
The interview was published in TIME, but we edited out a chunk of it. Here’s the rest of it below:
How was your appearance on Ellen? Was it fun?
Oh yeah. I had a great performance and the audience was awesome. I really feel weird because they sang along with the Korean words. They don’t have any idea what it means. There’s a word “sanaee” which means “the man of men.” [Note: here he means “the manliest man.”] The word appears a lot in the song so people get used to it, I think. I passed the mic and they said “sanaee.” They didn’t have any idea. All the Americans shouting Korean words. That was crazy for me. And they all know how to dance the dance.
It seems the ladies really like “Gangnam Style”
Yeah, I think it’s half and half. Half ladies and half guys. I saw YouTube’s percentages, who clicked more. YouTube found out that more guys clicked, which I don’t like. It seems like they felt more energy so I don’t know why. In Korea also, I have a lot of guy fans. It’s not a usual thing that guys like guys. Honestly, I don’t like it. I have allergy with guys.
How does it feel to be the first solo Asian artist to top the iTunes chart in the US?
Honestly I’m not the responsible person. I hate responsibility. I’m just the artist. The thing is everything I’m doing from now on is the very first time for Korean culture and Korean pop history, which means I’ve got to have some responsibility about that. I hate the word, but fortunately I’m representing my country right now…It’s the first time to be charted on Billboard and iTunes and first time within our own language. So to me it’s a really meaningful thing and the responsibility—I’m sort of joking—but the thing is, I’ve got to be good. I’ve got to appreciate my parents because they’re giving me such great talent to be a positive person…I don’t get any nervousness or panic to be together with the superstars. I’m just doing my job.
You’ve seen all these parody videos. The lifeguards, the navy. What’s your favorite one?
There are too many so I can’t tell. These kind of parodies are helping me. I really appreciate each of these parodies. A lot of people doing a lot of their styles. That’s what this song is all about. All the things I’m doing. It doesn’t have to look good, because honestly I don’t look good. But if they are doing what’s real for them and that is their style. I think their style is their own. Their style needs to be real. All the parodies look fun. They look like they’re having fun when they’re making this, so that’s what this song is all about.
You’ve been in the U.S. What has surprised you most about Americans?
Like today, when they sang along with any idea. That kind of thing is huge for me. It’s a culture shock. If I release a next one, it’s going to be in English.
Have you written it yet?
Not yet because I’m here and all the equipment is in Korea, so I’ve got to go back and write the song.
But you have ideas already?
There are plenty of different styles for composers. For me, I get really quick inspiration. I don’t actually plan for writing. I’m just living my life and meanwhile if I’ve got something, all of the sudden I’m writing. It’s random. But I don’t have it yet.
Do you feel pressured for your next song to be as big as this one?
I don’t know why, but I was born in a way that I cannot feel stressed about anything. I’m a very positive person. But the thing is I’m thinking a lot every day. I’m thinking lots of things every day. That’s not because I don’t care. I’m thinking too many things every day. It can be music, it can be some dance moves or part of the video. Mentally, I hate to take a rest.
Which American artists would you most love to collaborate with?
First of all, it doesn’t depend on name value. It depends on what the song is, so honestly I want to collaborate with everybody because they’re still a star to me. I want to work with everybody, but only if the song fits with him or her. I don’t think about any specific person. I’m thinking about the song first. For me, that’s my principle. The song first, the melody second, the lyric third, the concept fourth. I’m not thinking about collaboration yet.
Have you picked any endorsements or television appearances that you’re working on?
Here’s the deal. Three weeks ago, I arrived here. The reason I came here was I felt like I needed to promote myself. So I’ve got to promote myself more and more to get over the video first. I’ve got to promote who I am as well. Then I’m going to move on to the next step, which will be a single or an album. I don’t know yet.
Any plans to be in a video with Justin Bieber?
I haven’t met him yet because he’s on tour right now so he’s not in town. We already talked on the phone. I heard a lot about Justin from [manager Scooter Braun]. He heard a lot about me from Scooter. We can do some work together later on.
What might you do together?
I don’t like that kind of thing because Justin’s so popular and so famous. I want to be as huge as him and then we can do something together.
But it could help you, no?
It will be helpful. If Justin wants that, I’ll do it, but I’m not going to tell him, “Hey, help me out.”
Has it been good working with Scooter Braun?
Very much. He’s a very creative, smart manager.
From Psycho. Because I’m crazy about music, stage performance and show. I really like the word. It is great to be crazy in one certain aspect. So to me that’s psycho. That’s why I call myself psycho. My fan club in Korea, their name is “cho.” We share the name.
Yeah, but they prefer KO, like knockout.
This article was first published in June 2005
Telesur’s creators have promised an alternative source of news and culture for Latin American viewers, made entirely in the region. But with Chavez’s government financing over half of the project, and basing its operation in Venezuela, many are asking if it will be a continental-wide platform for the Chavista agenda
Telesur, a new multi-state television channel, is expected to hit Latin American airwaves on July 24. The station does not aim to be just another number on Latin Americans’ television dials. The channel says it will provide an alternative to the image of the region currently presented by commercial media outlets, which its web site says “is not representative of reality.” Such a mission has provoked some concerns.
CNN en Español, Latin America’s number one cable news channel, begs to differ with Telesur’s claim that commercial media has kept Latin Americans out of touch with their own cultures and histories. The channel’s vice president argues that CNN en Español goes the extra mile to portray the diversity of the region.
Secondly, President Hugo Chávez’ overt support for Telesur has led critics to wonder if the channel will be a platform for his government’s agenda. In response, Telesur insists its only agenda is to assist Latin American integration.
An image problem?
Telesur broadcast a twenty-four hour test signal in late May that reached Venezuela and parts of Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. The transmission gave viewers a hint of its programming, will which range from news, to films to cultural and educational shows. Venezuela is funding 51 percent of the project, while the governments of Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay are picking up the rest of the tab. One segment of the test broadcast, titled “A trip through Latin America,” reinforced the channel’s multi-state identity by showing a local Caracas bus heading off to destinations around the continent.
Another clip showed protesters holding an American flag branded with a swastika and torn apart by a bloody eagle. Later in the broadcast, pro-Chávez demonstrators hoisted a sign showing a caricature of Uncle Sam that read “Let’s crush imperialism.” Viewers are not likely to see such images featured on CNN.
Telesur vice president Aram Aharonian, a Uruguayan journalist, says he wants his channel to portray Latin America in a distinct light because he believes that the region’s viewers currently watch themselves through foreign eyes when they turn on the television. “The productions we get from abroad are a black and white vision of Latin America, usually in black when there is a disaster and nothing else,” he said in an interview.
Not mentioning any specific news agency, Aharonian also said coverage of Latin America by U.S.-based media shows “one only image” and has more to do with “Latin American idiosyncrasies” than the “diversity and plurality” of the region. “We are tired of them showing us images of Quito…and then afterwards analyses are done from Washington without broadcasting what the Ecuadorians think,” he said, referring to coverage of the recent ousting of Ecuadorian president Lucio Gutierrez. By portraying the news in this way, around-the-clock news organizations have left traditional journalistic principles behind, he claimed.
But, CNN en Español’s vice president Chris Crommett calls those charges a “red herring” and an “unfair characterization.” Crommett believes it is inaccurate to assume that his channel reflects an American point of view just because it is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. “Anyone that watches our air and says we’re not reflecting the voice of Latin America—not just institutional and presidential, but really all sectors of society—isn’t really watching much,” Crommett said in an interview.
All but one of the channel’s 15 on-air presenters in its Atlanta studios are native Latin Americans. CNN en Español also has correspondents in every Latin American country, the majority of whom are natives of those countries. Cromett called CNN’s work in the region “pioneering,” referring to the channel’s recent exclusive interview with Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and another with five Central American presidents.
Aharaonian did praise CNN’s work and said he was pleased when a CNN representative welcomed Telesur to the news market during its test broadcast. Yet the left-leaning journalist also alleged that media outlets worldwide were pressured by groups with economic power. “(In the United States) what ever doesn’t follow the perspective given by the Pentagon doesn’t get coverage,” said Aharonian.
Telesur will not broadcast commercial advertising, unlike CNN and large Spanish-language channels such as Telemundo and Univision. As far as films and documentaries go, Telesur is more concerned with giving Latin American productions air time than giving preference to money-makers. According to Aharonian, only 21 of over 600 documentaries made in Latin America last year got public exposure. He said Telesur strives to alleviate the “frustrations" of many Latin American artists who make productions “of great quality.”
Carlos Correa, director of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea, emphasized the struggles Latin Americans undergo to promote their cultural products. “For example, it’s very difficult to circulate Argentina rock (music) in Venezuela and to circulate Venezuelan productions (in Argentina), he said. He also said that CNN “dominates” in Latin America, but that this was “old problem” that had been studied at length. So if the presence of foreign media is a problem, does Telesur have the solution?
The Venezuelan government’s heavy presence at Telesur has critics suspicious about the intent of the channel. Communications minister Andrés Izarra is Telesur’s president. He gave an inaugural speech at the test broadcast, where he denied accusations made by Human Rights Watch that Venezuela was curtailing press freedom. “Freedom of expression has tremendous support from the Venezuelan government,” he said. The test signal that followed was sprinkled with references to the Bolivarian revolution, including images of Simón Bolívar and Chávez’ social programs.
A May opinion piece published in the Uruguayan newspaper El Pais, titled “Telesur or TeleChávez?,” argued that it is a contradiction for Cuba and Venezuela, two countries accused of press freedom abuses, to sponsor a channel that aims to give Latin America a more plural voice. Globovisión director Alberto Federico Ravell didn’t cast a friendly eye on the project either, telling The New York Times that it was “a presidential order” from Chávez.
Telesur’s vice president offers rhetoric similar to the president’s. In an interview, he urged news outlets to question the United States’ notion of “good terrorism and bad terrorism” in its handling of suspected terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. This is a catch phrase often repeated by government officials.
Yet Aharonian called allegations against the channel politically-motivated and begged audiences to wait until the channel hits the airwaves to make assessments. He also assured that the internal politics of nations will not affect Telesur’s programming. Even though he has previously called Venezuelan media outlets anti-Chávez, he said that any bias in Venezuelan media pertains only to local and national media.
The vice president also pointed out that programming will not only be produced at Telesur’s Caracas-based studios, but also by correspondents, independent producers, social organizations and national and local channels. Telesur will draw from news bureaus across the continent: Caracas, Mexico City, Washington, Havana, Bogotá, La Paz, Buenos Aires, Brasilia and Montevideo.
CNN en Español’s Crommett said he didn’t want to prejudge Telesur, noting that critics of CNN often jump to the conclusion that his channel has political affiliations. Provea’s Correa said that he didn’t presently foresee “any negative impact” from the new channel. The human rights expert explained that media sponsored by multiple governments was less likely to menace press freedom than a channel funded by one government. “In Europe there’s a channel that is paid for by the European Union,” said Correa. “So, what is the problem?”
Telesur is making a concerted effort to hit as many air waves as possible. Satellite coverage will make the channel available across the Americas and Western Europe.
Telesur is also negotiating with cable companies across Latin America and doing the best it can to bring coverage to the over 50 million Latinos in the United States and Canada. As of late May, over 35 U.S. public and regional television stations, as well as cable stations, had requested to carry the Telesur signal, Aharonian said.
Telesur’s journalists also appear poised to present an image unlike anything on commercial television today. Aharonian said the channel was concerned with the type of education journalists are currently receiving around the globe. In response, Telesur will train its staff at its own workshops, hiring from a pool of Latin Americans who have an understanding of the Telesur project and the different image the channel wants to present. “We want to work with young people, that haven’t been contaminated—in parenthesis—by the commercial media, which has a different form than what we want to be,” Aharonian said.
With only a ten-minute trailer and a lot of conjecture, it is difficult to determine at this point what Telesur’s concept of “uncontaminated” is. CNN’s Crommett did give Telesur one piece of advice: he said the station’s decision-making would need to be in the hands of professional journalists for Telesur to be a credible source of information. “I’m much more comfortable knowing that my bosses all the way up the line are all journalists with no agenda other than to try and present the news as best we can,” said Crommett. We will have to wait and see.
Articles first published in The Financialist in June 2015.
Gold for the Masses
For the price of lunch for two, savers can choose to invest in something much longer lasting: physical gold. Britain’s Royal Mint recently launched an online trading service called “Signature Gold,” which allows investors with limited funds to buy tiny portions of gold bars.
The purchases are based on total cost rather than a fixed weight, which is how gold is normally sold. That means that instead of buying a one-ounce gold bar from the Royal Mint, which currently costs £758 ($1,182), they can pay as little as £20 ($31.25) for a small fraction of a bar.
Buyers don’t get to store their shiny investment at home, but they still have full legal title to it and the right to sell it at any time. And they can rest assured their sliver of gold is being kept safe – police from the Ministry of Defense guard the Royal Mint at all times. (June 2015)
The Palm Oil Wild Card
It’s been a rough few months for palm oil prices. Cheap crude has slashed demand for biodiesel, the U.S. soybean crop (which provides an alternative to palm-derived oil) is expected to report record production this year, and Indian output of edible oils is booming. But El Niño may soon reverse the trend of falling prices.
Over the last 30 years, palm oil prices have surged after the Pacific Ocean weather pattern takes hold. That’s because El Niño can cause droughts in important palm production areas such as Indonesia, which in turn reduces output. The severe El Niño in 1997-98 reduced palm oil yields by 17 percent, and prices jumped from some 1,500 Malaysian ringgit ($400) in 1997 to 2,500 ringgit ($665) in 1998, according to Credit Suisse.
In fact, palm oil prices have increased between 7 percent and 125 percent during the last six El Niños. Stock prices for plantation companies rose between 6 and 25 percent during the last six events. And this time? It depends how severe El Niño turns out to be. Credit Suisse calls it a “wild card.” (June 2015)
Corporate Energy Independence
Energy independence is no longer just an ambition of sovereign nations—corporations are striving for it too. Large companies are increasingly developing and operating their own renewable energy plants, some with the goal of fully powering their operations with green electricity.
Take Wal-Mart, which developed its first on-site solar project in 2005. By the end of 2013, the company had 335 renewable energy projects in operation throughout the world, generating 2.2 billion kilowatt hours of power—24 percent of Wal-Mart’s total electricity needs. Others are even further down the road to self-sufficiency. Mexican supermarket chain Soriana said this month that it plans to spend $260 million to build two wind farms in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
The farms are expected to generate enough electricity for more than 300 Soriana stores, bringing the total number of its renewable-powered stores to 506 out of 674. And Swedish furniture maker IKEA announced this month that it was on track to reach its goal of powering 100 percent of its operations with renewable energy by 2020. (June 2015)
This article was first published in October 2007 in The Progressive.
A U.S.-owned smelter is making people sick in a Peruvian town.
Mercedes Inga Mejia blames the smokestack. First, her three-year-old son died of a rare form of cancer. Then, last year, her eldest daughter passed away at seventeen. She had an abnormally high level of arsenic in her blood. So does Mercedes’s remaining child, Susan, who walks into the nearly empty living room in the family’s house in La Oroya, Peru. Susan shows me mysterious white blotches on her face. Clutching a stack of medical records, Mercedes bursts into tears.
The smokestack belongs to Doe Run Peru, an affiliate of the St. Louis-based Doe Run Resources Corporation. Tall, wide, and set against the backdrop of a pallid mountainside in the central sierra, the smelter sits less than a half mile from La Oroya’s Old Town, on the banks of the Mantaro River. The smelter processes lead, copper, and zinc extracted from mines in the mineral-rich mountains nearby. The smokestack pumps lead, arsenic, and sulfur dioxide-filled gases into the air. Some mornings, when cold temperatures trap its discharge in the valley, white smoke engulfs the entire town. The smoke inflames eyes and burns throats. Chronic coughs and head aches return. People try to stay inside, and those who can’t cover their mouths with scarves and sweaters.
Last year, the level of lead in La Oroya’s air was more than six times higher than international air quality standards, according to Peru’s ministry of health. Nearly all children under six years of age in La Oroya Antigua had blood lead levels above ten micrograms per deciliter of blood, the acceptable limit set by the World Health Organization. The effects of lead exposure range from headaches and learning impairment to seizures, comas, and death. Children are most susceptible. The Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based environmental advocacy group, has deemed La Oroya one of the world’s ten most-polluted places, a list that includes Chernobyl.
“What do I do? They’re a rich, multimillionaire company, and I’m a poor woman,” Mercedes says. “Four hundred workers wanted to burn my house. They threatened to disappear my daughter, to kill my husband. The whole town asked me why I hated the company. For going out and telling the truth about my children, they’ve threatened me with death.”
There is no united front of residents turning against Doe Run. The city of 35,000 is poor, and the majority of people are directly or indirectly dependent on the smelter for their paychecks. This dynamic pits staunch supporters of the company, who are afraid that they will lose their jobs if they speak out, against those willing to admit they are fed up with their contaminated lives.
I seek out Mercedes’s cousin who lives across town. Rocio Guadalupe Mejia, who leads the community group Mercedes says threatened her, does not invite me into her house. Instead, we sit on a concrete bench facing the Old Town’s main plaza. She calls Mercedes a “liar” and insists her daughter’s death was caused by a simple skin disease rather than by lead poisoning.
She says it’s unrtue that the smokestack still causes health problems. Children like her own son, she says, who once had high a blood-lead level, are lowering their levels through hygiene and nutrition programs sponsored by Doe Run. Rocio’s daughter is at the top of her third grade class, she is proud to report. “We don’t have sick children here,” she says.
Company employees are split on the issue. On a crisp Sunday afternoon, I spot dozens of local men who are crossing a wooden pedestrian bridge connecting Old Town with the smelter. They are wearing heavy leather and polyester jackets atop wool sweaters and collared shirts, paired with jeans or faded slacks and black leather shoes. Some sport Doe Run baseball caps. Most are rushing to punch in their timecard. Others stop to talk.
Oved Javier is an eighteen-year veteran at the plant who works in a unit that distributes water and vapor to the smelter. He has nothing but praise for Doe Run. He assures me that his three kids are healthy even though they have never had their blood-lead levels measured.
Soon, several union men gather around me and speak about what seems an altogether different company. Sosimo Galarza Vivanco, fifty-two, was one of over 300 workers dismissed by Doe Run in 2002. He says he was laid off for criticizing the company, but has since found his way back. Contamination is still the norm, he says. “What they are interested in is production, but without expenses, without cost.” When I ask him why other workers, like Javier, applaud Doe Run, he says, “They are afraid of complaining because if they complain they are kicked out the next day.”
The smelter is responsible for nearly a century of contamination in La Oroya. The now-defunct U.S. firm Cerro de Pasco Corporation opened the smelter in 1922. The state-run Centromin Peru took it over in the 1970s. Doe Run inherited its dirty legacy when it bought the complex in 1997. But Doe Run was also already well-known for pollution. At the time, it was under pressure at home for lead contamination from its smelter in Herculaneum, Missouri. Doe Run’s owner, a conglomerate called Renco Corp run by New York billionaire Ira Rennert, then saw another one of its companies sued by the U.S. Justice Department for dumping hazardous waste. Rennert himself is best known for his mansion in the Hamptons, the largest occupied residence in the U.S.
Doe Run tries to be a good corporate citizen in La Oroya. It has refurbished schools and planted trees. Cleaning crews sponsored by Doe Run and managed by the ministry of health bathe the concrete of every street in Old Town three times a week. When I catch up with a squad one morning, a dozen men donning orange fluorescent construction hats are lathering up a basketball court and a steep street flanked by vendors. Using thick-bristled brooms, they scrub the cement with chemical detergent and then rinse it off with a red hose connected to a large water truck. Used to the ritual, residents walk right past the soapy sidewalks. Women even grab brooms to sweep their own doorsteps.
Some residents say that since the street-cleaning campaign began, lead-filled powder no longer collects in the streets. Doe Run supporters also praise company-sponsored and government-run efforts to teach children to wash their hands—an attempt to reduce the odds of ingesting lead—as well as a day care program that busses some ninety children with high blood-lead levels away from La Oroya Antigua for eight hours a day.
But these are merely palliative measures. A 2005 report on La Oroya conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said programs like these wouldn’t do much good for children’s blood-lead levels unless emissions were reduced. “Public health education and hygiene efforts alone are of little benefit in reducing elevated blood levels,” the report says. Dr. Jesus Diaz, director of the ministry of health and Doe Run’s health care center in La Oroya, agrees. “The principal activity that has to be done in La Oroya is the control of emissions,” he tells me in his office.
Kaimer Dolmos, Doe Run’s upbeat public relations director in La Oroya, lauds the company’s efforts to clean up operations. Dolmos says Doe Run’s concern for the community is so esteemed that other Peruvian companies are imitating its social programs.
Even my forgetting to put on my seat belt is a chance for him to show me how safety conscious the company is. Asking me to buckle up, Dolmos tells me that a company campaign to raise awareness for seat belts has been embraced not just in La Oroya, but in all of Peru. “Why is the sacrifice made?” Dolmos asks. “Because we don’t want to harm the population. Health is first.”
After making the curvy four-hour trek down the mountain road that services La Oroya, I meet with Doe Run Peru’s chief spokesman, Victor Andres Belaunde, on the ninth floor of a tower in a Lima business district. I ask him in his wood-paneled office if he can acknowledge that company operations could be responsible for the health problems in La Oroya. “I cannot recognize that,” he replies. I repeat my question three more times and get the same answer. It is the previous owners’ lack of environmental concern that is the “one central issue which is the main source of contamination,” Belaunde says.
The government’s lack of comprehensive health studies on La Oroya makes it impossible to analyze the health effects of the smelter. The ministry of health’s commitment to the contamination problem is halfhearted, says Dr. Hugo Villa, a neurologist in La Oroya. Doe Run and the ministry of health say extensive tests conducted in Lima found no illnesses in twenty-five children from La Oroya who had high blood-lead levels. But Villa says those tests aren’t enough to prove anything. The government has not invested in qualified doctors or the epidemiological and statistical studies necessary to establish a direct link between the company’s emissions and the public health crisis.
But a research team from St. Louis University’s School of Public Health, which conducted a study in La Oroya in 2005, issued a damning report last year. It said that, “the evidence of elevated levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic and other toxic metals in the bodies of residents in study sites indicate that there is an extremely serious environmental heath crisis affecting La Oroya, especially vulnerable populations such as young children.”
As for the source of contamination itself, Doe Run claims that it has cut lead emissions by one-third since the start of this year, charting a course towards compliance with national standards. To its credit, the company says it has so far invested $116 million on environmental upgrades and appears to have completed most of the reforms stipulated in A ten-year cleanup plan required by the government—although the state has yet to release an audit on those developments. They include a new water treatment plant and the enclosing of the lead refinery to reduce emissions.
But, as it turns out, the upgrade that would cut dangerous emissions the most—a new sulfuric acid plant that would capture poisonous sulfur dioxide before it wafts onto the population—is the one commitment Doe Run has not lived up to. The company has upgraded one such plant, but has not yet built two new ones it has promised. It requested an extension from the ministry to do so, and got it in late 2004. That prompted Maria Chappuis, who was general director of mining at the energy and mines Ministry, to resign. Reached by phone at her home, she responds to Doe Run’s argument that it has completed most of the upgrades. “If I marry a man who said he hit his ex-wife three times a day and HE only hits me once a day—at breakfast—is it good? Doe Run knows perfectly well that they would be shut down if they were in the U.S.”
The government may also be letting Doe Run off the hook with lax audits, says Eliana Ames, legal advisor to congresswoman Gloria Ramos, who is urging President Alan Garcia to make the health situation in La Oroya a priority. Ames says government studies of air quality in La Oroya, designed to be a check on the company’s own numbers, are not independent because Doe Run itself pays for the tests. And she says the ministry of energy has little incentive to hold Doe Run accountable because it is also in charge of promoting private investment.
On my tour of the smelter, I am only shown the three areas where upgrades have occurred, even though I have asked to see more. When we near the zinc refinery’s upgraded sulfuric acid plant, I am suddenly overcome with a smell so noxious I have to strap on a company gas mask. Wilver Delgado, the engineer who is accompanying me, also grabs his mask, which has been dangling around his neck, and holds it up to his face. “There must still be a gas leak,” he says.
In Asia-Pacific countries, the Pacific Ocean weather phenomenon El Niño is regarded with dread, which isn’t surprising, given that El Niño brings with it severe drought and heavy monsoons. The Japan Meteorological Agency’s announcement last month that El Niño emerged this spring and might last until autumn means that it’s officially time to worry again.
A precious few, too, might actually welcome its arrival. China's weather bureau expects the pattern to cause high temperatures in the north, setting companies that make air conditioners up for a boom year. Since 2004, the four best years for air conditioner sales in China coincided with El Niño.
This year, a Credit Suisse survey shows most manufacturers in China believe there is a strong chance of high temperatures this summer, and they expect a bump in sales as a result. So far in 2015, year-over-year sales have grown some 5 percent. A heat wave would clear out inventory and boost that figure toward double digits. (May 2015)
Horological History On Sale
This Thursday, more than two centuries of horological history will go under the hammer. The Sotheby’s Important Watches sale in New York will feature more than 250 timepieces dating back to 1780, including a rare 1951 Patek Philippe pink gold open-faced watch.
The piece depicts a map of North America and nearly two dozen musical automata created by Swiss artisans during the Industrial Revolution. Some of the items are expected to go for more than $1 million, including a “Singing Bird Scent Flask” automaton that was crafted by Swiss watchmakers Jacquet-Droz & Leschot.
The exquisite machine made for a Chinese buyer around 1785 is decorated with gold enamel and jewels and features a timepiece and articulated ivory bird whose song is played through a miniature six pipe organ.
Another highlight of the auction is a gold snuffbox from circa-1815 that is adorned with pearls and an enamel painting of a fortuneteller reading a palm. Inside there’s an automaton featuring a woman playing a harp, a man playing a lute, and a large timepiece. (May 2015)
Spin-offs Take Off
Do spinoffs create value? Credit Suisse analysts looked at a series of 16 recent instances thereof in Australia and found that on average, spun-off companies – so-called “Newcos” – dramatically outperformed parent companies.
On average, two years after a spin-off, parent company returns were statistically equal to those of the market. But Newcos outperformed the market by an average 30 percent. That average jumps to almost 50 percent when excluding three companies in the study that ran into regulatory trouble. (Of course, that might be why they were spun off in the first place, so to be fair, call it 30 percent.)
The analysts hypothesize that new managers running Newcos are more motivated and able to focus more narrowly on operations than they did when part of a larger organization. The finding isn’t unique to Australia. Credit Suisse carried out a similar study in the U.S. two years ago and found that spin-offs performed more than 10 percent better than the S&P 500 beginning eight months after the separation.
But buyer, beware: Results obviously vary considerably. Two-year returns among Australian spin-offs had a standard deviation of about 53 percent, with the worst performer earning a relative return of negative 68 percent and the best beating the market by 127 percent.
First published in The Financialist
In 2013, Ted Wiard shared his tragic and moving story for an episode of Bravery Tapes. This week, Ted remembered the episode on Facebook, I watched it again and was re-inspired. I went back to the original video we did and transcribed it, surfacing many details that weren't in the original video and article. I'm publishing here the first part of that transcription: Ted's telling of the death of his brother and his wife Leslie's battle with cancer. I will post subsequent segments soon. I hope you find his story as moving as I did.
Jens: Take us through everything that happened, beginning with Richard.
Ted: My life story changed heavily in 1989. Before that, I was a tennis pro and a 5th grade school teacher. In 1989, my brother Richard died in a shipwreck up in Alaska. He was as commercial fisherman and it was a strange wave that flipped his boat. Our whole family was devastated, shocked and freaked out.
Jens: What was it like for you when you found out?
Ted: I was super intense. I was actually in Phoenix, taking my USTA exam to be a tennis pro. I had just finished my last test and I was with a bunch of people and we were getting ready to leave the next morning. I was driving back with a pro from Santa Fe. We were planning to leave and I decided I just shouldn’t leave.
And at 5 that morning, I got a call from my mom telling me there had been horrendous shipwreck. They didn’t know who was alive. They had found one body and no other bodies. I knew Richard died. There was something in me that told me he had died.
About a year before that, I had actually been very sick and had almost died. He had made me promise that I would live from that sickness. As a mid 20-year-old, I thought I had that control and I promised him. The first thought was, “you made me promise to live and now you’ve died.”
I also felt I’d failed. I was the bigger brother, the protector and all of sudden my little bro was gone. I was fully confused. I went and woke up my other friend and he drove me to the airport and I flew home. The illusion of safety was gone. The whole way home I thought the plane was going to go down. It wasn’t for the fear of my death, it was the fear that if I died too, my parents would not be able to handle that. But finally, the plane landed safely and I was home.
And then I just felt so numb and so hollow inside. There was nothing I could do. It was the first time I really felt that surrender of total helplessness. Nothing I could do to protect my brother, which had been my job, I felt, growing up in Taos. A role was gone, my brother was gone, and I was completely devastated.
Jens: Did you recover from that before Leslie was diagnosed?
Ted: I don’t think so. Richard was supposed to be the godfather of Amy, who wasn’t born yet. Because I had a little girl already and Amy was about to be born, I didn’t realize it but life, instead of sneaking back in, engulfed us. We were busy being pregnant and we were a new couple trying to make our mortgage payment and hopefully having enough to eat halfway decently. Life just sucked us back into trying to do everything.
Pieces would come and I’d feel really sad and I’d miss Richard. But because then Amy was born and we were so busy, there was part of it that was just shelved away. There was grief, there was ceremony, we spread his ashes. We did all of the rituals but there was a part deep, deep down that really didn’t have Richard physically gone.
There’s death and then there’s this new birth of this little baby who came out and immediately laughed and so Amy just brought all this celebration of life in. The death piece was just an undercurrent.
Jens: What happened next?
Ted: So, we started life again. Amy was one and Keri was three. We went to Phoenix once again and she got really tired. We couldn’t understand why. We were at my step-dad’s house and he’s a doctor. She thought she had one more rib on one side than the other side. It was a tumor coming from her kidney, protruding out the front. It was a five-pound tumor.
My step-dad called people and we started the process. My step-dad came to tell me the next day that Leslie was really sick. The oncologist said, “you have a tumor the size of a softball and a tumor the size of a golf ball on your skull.”
Right there, our whole world changed. We died in the form we had known ourselves. She started having her surgeries. This information changed our world immediately. In some ways, I became a single dad, even though she was an amazing mom through her whole sickness.
All of a sudden, all those logistics I could take for granted were gone. I no longer rock climbed because I couldn't take that chance. I was just overwhelmed. I remember lying in bed and going, “what am I going to do? How am I going to take care of this if she dies?” Leslie looked over and said, “I’d like you to get married again someday.” So, I knew she was having the same thoughts. “How the heck is Ted going to do this if I’m not here, with one and three-year-old daughters?” It was like being in a wave and losing your surfboard and slamming that sand and having no idea what direction is up or down. And everything just hurt and was coming in so fast. The chaos was so intense.
We were making sure everything was ready for death. Luckily, we made it through the six months of chemo. Nothing fit. Everything was so overwhelming. Leslie almost died four or five times during those two years. Finally, as things increased and got worse and she became more and more in pain, I was tying Keri’s shoe in the hallway, and Leslie called me. I ran to check on her and Keri started crying. Leslie said, “Ted, no one is living in this house. It’s time to be reborn.”
We cut back on the steroids that were stopping the swelling and she died that February. And Keri and Amy and I started our life.
Leslie’s lessons still run so deep in me, celebrating every moment and every breath, and honoring death so that we live better. In that, she’s one of my biggest teachers.
So that’s the story of those two years. There’s a cancer bubble and a sickness bubble and nobody really knows what goes inside that bubble except the people who are actually in it. There’s the day in, day out, 2am talks of quality versus quantity, [the questions like] “I’m going to die right now. Should the girls be here?”
All those difference pieces as well as the medical needs are so intense. All of a sudden, when that bubble bursts and that person dies, I lost my role as a husband, as a caregiver. My buddy was gone, my high school sweetheart, my friend.
And all of a sudden, I had these two little girls looking up at me, waiting for me. I was having those same thoughts. “How am I going to do this? What am I going to do?” Keri came out and she was next to me and she goes, “Daddy, look, mother Earth is crying for mommy. And you get to spend more time with us.” And so out of the mouths of babes, comes the truth. Leslie’s belief that we were all being reborn — here was the beginning of that.
So luckily, with good family and good friends, Keri and Amy and I started out on the next piece of the journey.
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.