Archive for July, 2007

Comedian and celebrity impersonator Mike Kaminski has produced this fantastic re-dub of George C. Scott’s speech from the movie “Patton”. General Patton has come out of retirement to explain why we are fighting in Iraq, and what it all means.

Everybody needs to watch this. I mean, c’mon, music by Jerry Goldsmith, right? Here’s a transcript, like I promised. I did this one myself and I believe it is accurate.

At ease.

I want you to remember that this War on Terror, as well as our presence in the Middle East, is necessary and inevitable. To those who can’t understand that, they need to spend more time on the History Channel and less time in the Goddamn chat rooms.

In this time of nuclear weaponry, we cannot afford to wait for the fight to come to us. You need to understand that. This political correctness stuff’s a buncha crap! This generation is so Goddamn spoiled and lazy, they wouldn’t know a real threat to their freedom until it interrupted the power source to their Xbox and killed a half a million people! “The complacency of fools will destroy them.” That’s written in the Bible.

My God, I really wonder where we’d be today if some of our current members of Congress were presiding during World War II. I think we’d all be speaking German right now, and the world would have a serious shortage of Jews. These people like Harry Reid. That son of a bitch is like a man in combat who won’t provide you the cover fire you asked for so you end up getting your Goddamn head blown off! People like him don’t know anything more about the process of defending modern freedom than they do about fornicating.

Now. All this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to pull out of Iraq, is a lot of horse dung. Americans, traditionally, will protect their freedom. All real Americans love a good fight. When you were kids, you all admired the champion football player, the fastest gamer, the greatest superhero, the toughest boxer. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I don’t give a hoot in Hell if you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist. If you intend to take up arms to harm America or Americans, you will lose.

Now we have the best equipment, facilities, the most technologically advanced weaponry in the world. And you can be thankful of that. Without it, there’d be a Hell of a lot more dead.

Now I say to the Iraqi citizens that if you know of people planning insurgency, stop them! If you see or hear about someone planning a roadside bomb, stop them! Shoot those bastards in the guts! Report their activities! That is the only way to build a truly great nation. The people must get involved and take it back, just as Americans did against the British in the 1700s. Being free is part of every religion, but a lack of freedom, and misguided education, can create enormous setbacks.

In 1939 when the British ally Poland was attacked and occupied by Germany, do you know that that small island of Britain had the balls and fortitude to declare war on those Nazi bastards? While we did nothing. We didn’t want to get involved, we said. How dare we not learn from such things!

This is not a God damn video game! This is a modern fight for freedom, and security of this nation and the world.

Now the current leader in Iran has made it very clear that he wants to destroy America, and threatens a second Holocaust against the Jews. And this leader is obtaining nuclear technology right under our noses. The difference between him and Hitler, is that Hitler built up his war machine in secrecy. How stupid and ignorant should we be? If Hitler would have had nuclear weapons, he’d have used ’em. If Japan would have had them, they’d have used ’em. You had all better wake up. If it were up to me, we’d already be in Iran, and their leader would be one dead son of a bitch!

After World War II there was a plaque laid in Germany which reads:”Never again fascism”. How dare you forget and allow it again! You all know the old saying, “History repeats itself.” Well. Here we are.

Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get anymore messages saying that we need to pull out Iraq. We’re not pulling out of anything. Let the enemy do that. We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in pulling out of anything except a parking lot.

Now. There’s one thing that you men and women will be able to say when you get back home, and you may thank God for it. Twenty years from now, when you’re sitting around your family with your grandson on your knee, and he asks you what did you do in the Great War on Terror, you won’t have to say, “Well, I listened to far left bullshit, sat on my ass, and was more concerned with American Idol than I was about American security and freedom.”

All right, now you sons of bitches and women, you know how I feel. I would be proud to lead you wonderful people into battle. Anytime. Anywhere.

That’s all.

Spending several hours a day with a fax machine at your elbow is usually not an annoying situation, provided that you are the only person in the office and that the only time you ever receive a fax is when it’s spam.

Usually there is a removal number on junk faxes that you can call to get off their mailing list. Over the past few months, however, I have been getting a certain kind of fax spam here that does not have a removal number. What’s strange, though, is that I can’t figure out what the business model of the spammer is, because the company whose stock is being promoted has publicly denounced the spam and they are the victim of a third party spammer.

Below is the spam I received today from this third party spammer:

stockspam.jpg

The company being flakked is Pay88, Inc. They sell prepaid internet gaming and phone cards. They are not responsible for the spam, as they have stated recently:

Pay88, Inc. announced today that it has come to the attention of the Company that it is currently the victim of third-party stock spammers. As of July 14th, third-party spammers disseminated an untold number of spam emails promoting the company without the company’s knowledge. The Company did not send or authorize any such messages nor did it authorize any of the parties disseminating such information

Because I’m the curious sort, and because spam really pisses me off, I’ve done some digging about the spammer (as much as I can without forking over $14.95 or more for a detailed report).

My fax machine reports that the number the spam came from is (678) 369-6703. The phone number is unlisted, but the area code is Atlanta, GA here in the United States. I’ve gotten other stock spam (for a company called Fire Mountain Beverage Co.) from a spammer using the same type of header that this fax has. That phone number was (214) 377-0512, which is in Dallas, TX. (Fire Mountain, by the way, has also publicly denounced this spam).

Who is sending these stock spam faxes? More importantly, what is their business model? There is no identifying information on the fax, no removal number (which is a huge Federal no-no), and no redirect (such as a website that the spammer might own and thus profit from).

This makes no logical sense…unless one concludes that the companies in question are lying and that they did, in fact, pay someone to spam their stock. That’s the only profit model that I can see here. That makes these two companies not only liars, but violators of Federal law on unsolicited advertising and Securities fraud. If it is true, I hope the SEC and the FTC come down on them like the Hammer of Thor for being such assholes.

Resources:

US Federal Trade Commission on advertising: Consumer Policy Issues

Spamnation tracks unsolicited emails and is a good clearinghouse for this sort of thing. Note that this is a .info domain. If you try to go to .com or .org versions of this URL, you’ll get the wrong stuff.

WhoCalledUs will help you figure out who is behind mysterious phone calls you are getting. It was through this site that I figured out that Sprint itself was responsible for obnoxious random phone calls I was getting on my cell phone.

This cartoon, originally aired on BET, has been getting a lot of attention lately. Apparently it’s controversial. Personally I think it is 1) funny, 2) true, 3) necessary. Caution: This video contains a lot of uses of the words “fuck” and “shit” in various conjugations. I don’t recommend watching this at work unless you have headphones or an office door.


(Broken video has been fixed)

The artist is Bomani Armah (he goes by the name D’Mite), and his website, www.notarapper.com, elaborates on the nature of his music. He describes himself as a “poet with a hip-hop style, not a rapper”. That is, poetry to a hip-hop beat, rather than the gangsta trash that masquerades as hip-hop these days. I agree with the sentiment. Rap and hip-hop can be good. It’s just that the material that gets mainstream play completely sucks and is written by people with no talent or creativity.

This particular cartoon is a satire of a Tennessee style of rap music called “crunk”, which Webster defines thusly:

crunk – ‘krəŋk Function: noun

1. a style of Southern rap music featuring repetitive chants and rapid dance rhythms

Here are the lyrics, for the benefit of people (mostly my parents) who are not going to be able to make head or tail of the video:

Read a book! Read a book! Read a motherfuckin’ book!
Read a book! Read a book! Read a motherfuckin’ book!
Read a book! Read a book! Read a motherfuckin’ book!
Read a book! Read a book! Read a motherfuckin’ book!

R-E-A-D A B-O-O-K!
R-E-A-D A B-O-O-K!
R-E-A-D A B-O-O-K!
R-E-A-D A B-O-O-K!

Not a sports page! Not a magazine! But a book, nigga! A fuckin’ book, nigga!
Not a sports page! Not a magazine! But a book, nigga! A fuckin’ book, nigga!
Not a sports page! Not a magazine! But a book, nigga! A fuckin’ book!

Raise yo kids! Raise yo kids! Raise yo Goddamn kids!
Raise yo kids! Raise yo kids! Raise yo Goddamn kids!
Raise yo kids! Raise yo kids! Raise yo Goddamn kids!
Raise yo kids! Raise yo kids! Raise yo Goddamn kids!

Your body needs water, so drink that shit!
Your body needs water, so drink that shit!
Your body needs water, so drink that shit!
Your body needs water, so drink that shit!

Buy some land! Buy some land! Fuck spinnin’ rims!
Buy some land! Buy some land! Fuck spinnin’ rims!
Buy some land! Buy some land! Fuck spinnin’ rims!
Buy some land! Buy some land! Fuck spinnin’ rims!

Brush yo teeth! Brush yo teeth! Brush yo Goddamn teeth!
Brush yo teeth! Brush yo teeth! Brush yo Goddamn teeth!
Brush yo teeth! Brush yo teeth! Brush yo Goddamn teeth!
Brush yo teeth! Brush yo teeth! Brush yo Goddamn teeth!

Wear deodorant, nigga!
Wear deodorant, nigga!
Wear deodorant, nigga!
Wear deodorant, nigga!

It’s called SpeedStick! It’s not expensive!
It’s called SpeedStick! It’s not expensive!
It’s called SpeedStick! It’s not expensive!
It’s called SpeedStick! It’s not expensive!

D’Mite’s song is interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is that the target is not the gangsta image, per se. Instead, he is offering general advice on how to live properly and live well. He doesn’t denounce the street slang, or the clothes, or the culture specifically. In fact, he embraces it in order to set some priorities.

I don’t normally think of inner city black youth as people who have bad personal hygiene habits or improperly invest their money. Mostly the stereotype is around drugs, gangs, violence, and poor family planning. The parenting issue is addressed in D’Mite’s song, but I didn’t expect real estate advice to also come with it.

Are deodorant and proper hydration endemic problems among inner city blacks? Does this song address some cultural habits that are not apparent to people who don’t live in those communities? I’m curious to hear any comments about this.

No, I’m not talking about the electronic kind that annoys people. I’m talking about the kind you eat. I just finished picking these at work:

blackberries_01.jpg

Wild summer blackberries right off the vine. Whether accidentally or by design, much of the property fence on the side facing the highway is lined with blackberry bushes. They serve as a great deterrent to trespassers, as anyone who has ever gotten tangled up in one can tell you. They also grow fast and aggressively, and require no care beyond natural sun and rainfall.

I started noticing that they are fruiting, and eagerly waited until there were enough ripe ones to pick. They’re sweet and delicious, and a few are now staining my clothes (the whole thing reminds me of this story from my childhood). There are so many more, fat, juicy ones beyond the fence that I can’t reach. Damn. Anyway, I will wash these and probably have with my lunch today. Maybe some cream to go with them would be warranted.

And yes, the blackberry vines did have their revenge on me for taking them. I have scratches up and down my arms now.

One of my projects at work is painting the golf cart we use as a lot vehicle. I’m just doing it for fun, and I’ve decided not to bill the company for the cost of materials, since I figure I’m getting at least that much value back in experience and experimentation in working with plastic and fiberglass.

A tenant who is a professional painter made a recommendation on the type of paint to use and the general technique (do the painting in the shade, on a cool surface, then put in the sun to bake it on). So I’ve had the golf cart inside one of the large storage units (which we use as a garage for the cart) in order to paint it.

Now, this is spray paint we’re talking about. So of course I’m concerned about fumes. I leave the roll-up door completely open, and there is typically a good breeze here, so the ventilation is very good. I wore some old, ratty clothes (which are now covered with green and white paint), and latex gloves.

I did not, however, wear any protection for my lungs. I spent 1½ hours in that garage, spray painting. When I was done I had green nostrils and I spat green saliva for an hour afterward. I went home and did a nasal irrigation and expelled hunter green mucus from my sinus cavities.

Today I did some more spray painting. This time I wore a NIOSH N95 safety mask. This type of mask protects against airborne particles, such as paint mist (although not oil-based aerosol fumes — for that you need a P95 rated mask). This, ladies and gentlemen, is what I was breathing the first time when I wasn’t wearing a mask:

While it is true that mucus is one of the body’s barriers against foreign matter entering the body, it isn’t 100% effective. When I went outside the unit for a breather every couple of minutes, I noticed that the breeze was pulling the paint mist out and the mist was so thick it looked like smoke coming out of the building. The moral of the story is: always wear all your safety gear, even if you don’t plan to be working very long.

My professional competency is something I take pride in, and take great care to preserve. In particular, my jobs over the years have involved working with lots of numbers, often money-related, and it is very important that those numbers be correct.

In my current job, I am responsible for reconciling the daily receipts and handling bank deposits. The computer produces reports and my manual checks must match. This morning I got email from our operations manager, forwarded from the parent company’s accountants:

7/3/07 daily is off on the deposit part. The deposit slip says $3481.00. It should be $3951.

Of course I was curious, since I rarely make an error like this. So I pulled our copy of the daily deposit for that date and examined it. Then I sent this reply:

The deposit was correct. There were 2 deposit slips for that day, as there were so many payments. Both pink copies are attached to the daily I sent. 1st slip totals $3481.00 and the 2nd is $470.00, for a total of $3951.00 received for 7/3/07.

The short version for people who don’t want to try to parse that is:

Accountant: “OH NOZ THE DEPOSIT FOR 7/3/07 IZ TEH WRONG.”

Me: “O NO IT IZNT.”

It reminds me of when my father went back to school during the unemployment peak in the 1980’s. He very rarely got a wrong answer on an exam, and as a result, the professor later told him that when he had seen a wrong answer come out of the Scantron machine on my dad’s test, he had checked the answer key and discovered that the key was wrong.

In either case, I think the following picture is appropriate:

A friend of mine (hi, Oscar!) was wearing one of these Evil Mastermind shirts, and I just had to have one. I’m a software engineer by profession, with a somewhat acerbic personality, and ‘Your Code Is Suboptimal’ is probably going to turn into my new catch-phrase. Luckily, Eric Sink was giving them away free. Well, mostly.

The cost is that I have to have a picture taken of myself wearing the shirt and blog it (and give SourceForge permission to use the image). As an Objectivist, I try to adhere to the Trader Principle and fulfill my contracts. Herewith:

As a bonus, for the estimated three people reading this who don’t already know me personally, this is more or less what I look like. (The extent to which this does not look like me is the fault of my wife Anne and the GIMP. Figuring out which parts are me and which are her is left as an exercise to the reader.)

Today I went to an odd little store in Cupertino called the Lychee Tree. It’s best described as a Japanese version of a dollar store. Well, more exactly, it’s Japanese plus other generic China-made oddities. This particular store has an eBay presence as the seller “japan_bargain”, which I discovered purely by accident. The eBay items are a tiny fraction of the random knickknacks found on the shelves.

We will examine a small selection of items that I purchased there. We begin with:

The Flyswatter

For whatever reason, I have been totally unsuccessful at finding a flyswatter for sale in my neck of the woods (or even on the internet). It’s a simple thing designed for a simple use: swatting flying insects. In this part of California, we have seasonal problems with populations of tiny moths, and I was delighted to discover this Japanese flyswatter at the mere price of $1.75.

The Pill Case

One of the things I really like about Japan is the attention to detail and quality in even the most trivial, everyday items. This pill case is a great example. Multiple smaller boxes in rainbow colors all fitting inside a larger, clear case with a simple plastic latch on it. I love the simplicity and attractiveness of the design. Sure, I can buy pill cases here, but they usually come in some boring uniform color, like blue or white, and typically have something pre-printed on them, such as the day of the week.

I don’t want my pill case to be marked. If I want it marked, I can put little stickers on it. Apparently the Japanese maker of this pill case thought the same. Why mess it up the aesthetic of an otherwise ordinary item that can bring a bit of color into your day?

Sugar Dog

Here we start to get a bit strange (which is part of the charm of Japanese products). This box is a general-purpose thing for storing small jewelry, beads, tiny candies, or whatever else comes to mind.

It’s the Engrish on this package that I really love. “Lovery Animal World”. I can’t help but wonder if that’s supposed to say “Lovely”. The text on the box itself is hard to read in the picture, but it says “The kind hearted blue dog with a weakness for sweets”. I guess “Sugar Dog” is an appropriate name, then. I think it also implies that this box is intended for keeping small candies close at hand. I approve of this idea.

The Ear Cleaning Sticks

Japan has cotton swabs, I know for a fact. So this is presumably intended for some other purpose. I bought them because I just had to know.

These little plastic sticks come attached on a plastic tree (like plastic model kit parts), and you twist one free to use it. What I discovered is that the business end is sticky, so I suppose it’s meant to clean the outer ear canal by grabbing onto foreign particles. It doesn’t work so well for ear wax, since ear wax resists adhering to a sticky surface, so I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of this product is.

Apparently sticking it into your ear too far is contraindicated, as it is with cotton swabs. I’m not sure you could even get away with selling a product like this in the United States (the dollar store notwithstanding), because you know some moron is going to perforate their child’s eardrum with it.

The Syringe

When I first saw this item in the store, I did a double-take, because it can’t possibly be what it looks like. What is this for?

Closer examination reveals that the “needle” on this syringe is not sharp, or even pointed. It’s hollow, certainly, but you won’t be injecting any heroin with this baby.

The “needle” part screws onto the capsule firmly, which is quite a clever design since it is more water-tight than a snap-on design. I bought a blue one, but this item also was available in the store in pink.

More fabulous Engrish on the back of the package. I especially like the fact that the word “things” is hyphenated. The little diagram in the upper left looks disturbingly like a syringe pulling a dose of medication from a sealed ampoule. A closer looks, however, shows something that looks more like a fingernail polish bottle. The small text next to it says “Dropper for refilling such as perfume”.

Okay, so it’s supposed to be an eyedropper of sorts for transferring some liquid from a large container to a smaller one. The Japanese cosmetic products I saw at the store suggest that there is a big market for tiny, daily-supply containers for makeup and such, so this makes sense. I remain confused, however, about the choice of delivery vehicle for this. A syringe? Why not just an eyedropper?

Anyway, these items seemed to cry out for the “strange capitalism” tag. Japan has a product market that reflects its consumers and their culture. I’m always fascinated by the social customs revealed by products like this. I’m also fascinated by tiny containers and tiny things with moving parts, so stores like this feed some kind of personality quirk that I have. Hope you all enjoyed.

Zimbabwe continues its Mugabe-shaped implosion, this time with government-mandated price controls that are being enforced at the point of a gun.

(For simplicity’s sake, the quotes in today’s blog will be in 3 different colors, to represent 3 different sources:

In Yellow: Associated Press article dated July 14th, 2007

In Green: New York Times article dated May 2nd, 2006

In Pink: Canadian government report on Zimbabwe using data provided by STAT-USA, dated 2004

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Police impounded taxis that had not complied with government orders to cut fares, stranding commuters, state media reported, while shoppers stampeded stores as cornmeal, bread, meat and other staples vanished from groceries.

At least 100 taxis had been impounded since Wednesday, state radio said, in the latest crackdown since the government ordered price cuts of about 50 percent in response to the country’s rampant inflation. Since the June 25 order, consumers have wrestled over sudden bargains, and chief executives have been hauled into court for failing to cut prices.

This is why price controls don’t work. All they do is create shortages, and then the goods are not available at all, at any price.

Market forces will cause a business to resist lowering prices below its costs. That is, if a gas station buys its gasoline supply at $1.00 / gallon, and the government tells them they can only sell it for $0.75 / gallon and no more, then the gas station has two choices: refuse and survive, or obey and go out of business.

Devil’s Advocate: “Then the government just makes the gasoline supplier charge less for the gas, and then the gas station can buy it and make a profit.”

Counterargument: There are two possible sources for the gasoline: internal to the country, and imported from outside. If it’s imported, the supplier is going to tell the country to go to Hell, and then stop selling fuel there (because the profit is either lousy or nonexistent – no incentive). If the supply is from within the country, the supplier faces the same dilemma: is the government forcing a price reduction that is below the cost of producing the fuel? If so, to survive the company must refuse the price reduction.

Even a state-owned supplier is not immune to this economic truth. Producing goods has costs associated with it: Capital equipment such as refineries, wages to employees, raw materials (crude oil).

The report on Zimbabwe by the Canadian government back in 2004 made a parallel observation:

Construction has experienced very tough times recently, with income off more than 80 percent since 1999, as inflation and high capital costs have stifled spending on projects and building, a situation exacerbated by the hard currency shortage that prevents the importation of required equipment and fixtures for new buildings. Private companies in the transportation sector have similarly been hit hard by price controls and the hard currency shortage, the latter causing maintenance and fleet replacement difficulties. The private telecommunication sector is, on the whole, doing well; although rising equipment import costs and the need to pay international connection charges in hard currency have tested their strength and resiliency. Price controls, corruption and mismanagement have resulted in huge losses at many of Zimbabwe’s largest parastatals, including the Posts & Telecommunications Company, the national railway, the national oil company and the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority. . .

Manufacturing, which has suffered extensively in recent years, is a victim of spiraling inflation, limited capital availability, declining real consumer incomes, critical hard currency and imported component shortages, and a shrinking human capital base, and as a result faces extreme uncertainty.

As government forces those costs to go down the results are poor quality equipment, poor quality or nonexistent employees, and insufficient raw materials. The 2006 article in the New York Times indicates what the consequences of this are:

The purity of Harare’s drinking water, siphoned from a lake downstream of its sewer outfall, has been unreliable for months, and dysentery and cholera swept the city in December and January. The city suffers rolling electrical blackouts. Mounds of uncollected garbage pile up on the streets of the slums.

These problems have been going on for at least a year now, probably longer. When the sanitary infrastructure breaks down, and people start getting sick and dying, panic sets in. People will become more and more desperate, and more and more willing to resort to violence to survive. Keeping order is already impossible, and the country is descending into anarchy:

Riot police were called Thursday to a wholesale store to control a stampede of shoppers gathering up reduced goods. Extra police were posted at downtown clothing and shoe stores.

People rush to buy what they can while the items are available. The lower prices are a primary incentive, but many people also realize that once the existing stock is gone, more will not be forthcoming. The paper currency is losing its value from day to day. Physical goods are what has value. So they hoard what they can get. This also causes people to take more than they need, leading to a distribution of goods that is unequal to actual demand:

“There’s a surrealism here that’s hard to get across to people,” Mike Davies, the chairman of a civic-watchdog group called the Combined Harare Residents Association, said in an interview. “If you need something and have cash, you buy it. If you have cash you spend it today, because tomorrow it’s going to be worth 5 percent less.”

Earlier in the week, the government withdrew the licenses of all private slaughterhouses, accusing them of refusing to reduce meat prices.

Restaurants and fast food outlets were also ordered to slash their prices. Police told one restaurant owner to “redesign the menu,” to eliminate more expensive gourmet dishes.

In several restaurants, steak was out of stock, waiters said.

Police even shut down the canteen at the Harare law courts, used by court officials, magistrates and police, for failing to comply with the price order, state media reported Friday.

Notice the direct connection here. Restaurants are asked to cut prices, but they can’t unless they can acquire the raw foods they need at lower prices, also. If the butcher refuses to sell them meat at the government-mandated lower prices, then the restaurant cannot survive. The butcher cannot comply with the lower prices because it, too, will die if it obeys. That leads to this:

Butcheries, stores, factories and gas stations were unable to replace materials sold at below the original cost since the prices edict.

The rush of people to buy up goods while they can causes existing stocks to run out more quickly. Then, no more supplies arrive, because suppliers either go out of business or they simply cannot provide more at the prices the government has fixed.

The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper, a respected privately owned business and political weekly, on Friday reported that central bank governor Gideon Gono expressed concerns over the prices crackdown, saying it likely would lead to widespread closures of businesses.

The fact that this newspaper is able to even print something resembling the truth, rather than Mugabe’s propaganda, is largely due to it being privately owned. The central bank governor, at least, appears to be reasonably intelligent about economics, which one would expect of a banking administrator.

State radio on Friday quoted Simon Khaya Moyo, Zimbabwe’s ambassador in neighboring South Africa, dismissing media reports there predicting the collapse of the economy, ending President Robert Mugabe’s long reign.

Translation: Simon Moyo is 1) Mugabe’s lapdog, 2) an idiot, or 3) both.

Official inflation is 4,500 percent, the highest in the world, though independent financial institutions estimate real inflation is closer to 9,000 percent.

I like how the article just presents this naked fact right after reporting denials that the economy is in bad shape.

The New York Times article provides some context for these inflation numbers. Keep in mind that at the time of the article, inflation in Zimbabwe had not yet reached 1000%:

. . .at a supermarket near the center of this tatterdemalion capital, toilet paper costs $417.

No, not per roll. Four hundred seventeen Zimbabwean dollars is the value of a single two-ply sheet. A roll costs $145,750 — in American currency, about 69 cents.

The price of toilet paper, like everything else here, soars almost daily, spawning jokes about an impending better use for Zimbabwe’s $500 bill, now the smallest in circulation.

But what is happening is no laughing matter. For untold numbers of Zimbabweans, toilet paper — and bread, margarine, meat, even the once ubiquitous morning cup of tea — have become unimaginable luxuries. All are casualties of the hyperinflation that is roaring toward 1,000 percent a year, a rate usually seen only in war zones.

The article is accompanied by this interesting graphic:

zimb_graphic.jpg

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change described the price cuts as a political gimmick to shore up support for Mugabe’s party.

If that is Mugabe’s intent, then he’s an idiot, too. But we already knew that. I’m surprised the guy hasn’t been assassinated yet (although I hear there have been attempts). This is an absolute catastrophe that will have a severe impact on Africa as a whole, and set back the general level of civilization there by many decades.

It is, however, an object lesson in how certain kinds of economic policies don’t work, and often have the opposite effect from that intended. Price controls Do. Not. Work. I can’t say it enough, folks.

Usually I’m not impressed by France, which includes not being impressed by their modern art. However, I’m making an exception this year with the advent of the Loire Estuary 2007 project. Basically, it’s a 40-mile stretch of river in France that is the territory of a number of outdoor, freestanding (or floating) works of art. The entry that has attracted the most attention is Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s “Badeend”, which translates to “Rubber Duck”:

I submit to you that this is made of 100% Awesome™. I giggle uncontrollably every time I look at a picture of it, although I’m not sure why. Hofman has this to say about his work:

A yellow spot on the horizon slowly approaches the coast. People have gatherd and watch in amazement as a giant yellow Rubber Duck approaches. The spectators are greeted by the duck, which slowly nods its head. The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate people and doesn’t have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relief mondial tensions as well as define them. The rubber duck is soft, friendly and suitable for all ages!

The rubber ducky is made of rubber-coated PVC, with a pontoon and a generator to keep it inflated. It is free-floating, and has prompted a “duck hunt” up and down the Loire river among visitors eager to see the duck. It might be a good thing that this particular ducky does not have a squeaker. It would break windows from Tours to Lyon.

In all fairness, the artist is Dutch, so I suppose I’m still not impressed by France.

All images are © Florentijn Hofman