December 14, 2005

Passage of the Day: Tammy Bruce on Hollywood’s Current Funk (The Long-Term Looks Worse)

Filed under: Business Moves,Corporate Outrage — Tom @ 4:41 pm

On the cusp of the “most disappointing box office performance in 15 years,” (noted in its earlier stages here) this story shows that Hollywood doesn’t want to understand why it’s happening.

Tammy Bruce explains the current funk (HT Instapundit):

Hollywood honchos continue to wring their hands over why you’ve stopped going to the movies. They blame ticket prices and DVD availability. They had better start considering the fact that filmmakers are so disconnected, so nihilistic, that the hopelessness and hostility they feel toward the world now permeates their work. Americans will no longer go see movies which are nothing more than the manifestation of the backwash of malignant narcissists. We’re also sick and tired of listening to actors lecture us about how awful the US is, and more recently, why a cold-blooded mass murdering gang founder should have been given clemency. Enough is enough.

Not only will we not go see films which insult us, we refuse to support an existential worldview. We happen to think life does matters (sic), that decency is a good thing, and that people are inherently good, not bad. We also have stopped believing the lie that Americans are bad people. We looked away for 4 decades as that lie was spread, but that time is over.

So you can take your gay sheepherder, noble communist supporting reporters, big-business is evil, Americans are hopelessly and inherently corrupt and violent and unfaithful movies and go to Cannes where at least the Parisian set will love you. But that won’t exactly pay the bills, will it?

Ms. Bruce didn’t even get to the BIG long-term problem, which will be hastened by the elitism described above: Technology is getting so good that every Tom, Dick, and Harriet with a few thousand bucks and a little creativity can make films that look and feel nearly as good as Hollywood’s best–without the megamillions stars and the megamillions production budgets. For more on this, go here, and to John Dvorak’s column on the subject (Dvorak limits his thoughts to the end of theaters; I obviously think it will go much further than that). Then what will they do?
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UPDATE: Clive Davis piles on: “I’m always struck by the uniformity of views among the artists and literati I’ve interviewed. For almost all of them, the notion that there might just be another point of view simply doesn’t exist. It’s their religion, really, which is ironic, since they usually make a point of saying how much they distrust religion. Other people’s religion, that is.”
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Dec. 14: Outside the Beltway Jammer.

Two “Breakthrough” Stem Cell Stories Get Very Different Media Coverage: Guess Why

Filed under: Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 3:01 pm

(Cross posted at NewsBusters.org)

Two “breakthoughs” in stem-cell research announced at roughly the same time have, based on Google News searches, received very disparate treatment in news coverage.

(Note: The screen shot that follows was taken at about 10AM on December 14. The “hours ago” indicator is only for the lead item listed. Coverage of both stories began in the early AM hours of December 13.)

StemCellStories

The first, originally covered by the Louisville Courier Journal, is about adult stem cells and how researchers are claiming that they can be made to do all the tricks that, until this “breakthrough,” embryonic stem cells have been thought to be able to perform:

University of Louisville researchers have coaxed stem cells from adult mice to change into brain, nerve, heart and pancreatic cells. That could lead to treatments for human diseases and end the debate over embryonic stem cells.

“We have found a counterpart for embryonic stem cells in adult bone marrow. This could negate the ethical concerns,” said Dr. Mariusz Ratajczak, leader of the research team and director of the stem-cell biology program at U of L’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center.

You can see that this adult stem cell “breakthough” had only 31 “related items” in a Google News search as of about 10 AM today, with no apparent coverage by the Associated Press or the New York Times. United Press International is the only major wire service or major newspaper that has mentioned the story.

The second, primarily covered by The Washington Post’s Rick Weiss (“Human Brain Cells Are Grown In Mice”) appeared on Page A03 of the paper on Tuesday, December 13, and is about embryonic stem cells:

By injecting human embryonic stem cells into the brains of fetal mice inside the womb, scientists in California have created living mice with working human brain cells inside their skulls.

The research offers the first proof that human embryonic stem cells — vaunted for their potential to turn into every kind of human cell, at least in laboratory dishes — can become functional human brain cells inside a living animal, reaching out to make connections with surrounding brain cells.

But this embryonic stem cell “breakthough” had 305 “related items” in a Google News search as of about 10 AM today, including coverage by the Associated Press and the New York Times.

There are probably two factors at work here:

  1. A relatively minor factor is that Louisville, where the adult stem cell “breakthrough” has been reported, is in the Midwest, considered a scientific backwater by much of the press.
  2. I believe that the much more important factor is that adult stem cell “breakthroughs” reinforce the arguments of prolife advocates that embryonic stem cell research destroys human life and is scientifically unnecessary because of progress with adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cell breakthroughs, on the other hand, legitimize the views of those who believe that working with embryos is the only way to ultimately achieve disease-conquering treatments, and that prolife concerns about destroying little humans are irrelevant at best, and standing in the way of human progress at worst.

Given their well-documented mostly proabort beliefs, there’s little doubt that the large majority of Mainstream Media reporters have a bias towards embryonic stem cell research, which is why the embryonic stem cell story would be expected to received broader coverage. Indeed, it has.

Marvel: Wireless Camera Can Relay Video and Audio

Filed under: Marvels — Tom @ 2:59 pm

Its initial application is for security, and the “hurling” part may not have a lot of other applications, but if the prices come way down like other electronics have, something very similar to what is described here should find many other uses:

Police officers stepping into hostage standoffs and other dicey situations now have something new to throw into the mix – a baseball-sized camera that can be hurled from afar, survive the landing and wirelessly relay video and audio back to base for two hours.
The EyeBall camera weighs less than a pound and is protected by a rugged rubber and polyurethane housing. That allows it to be thrown through windows or bounced off walls. When it comes to a rest, the ball stabilizes itself, then begins transmitting footage and sound up to 200 yards away.
The EyeBall is the creation of an Israeli company, ODF Optronics Ltd., which has sold the devices to the Israeli military and to undisclosed military and law enforcement customers in Asia and Europe.
Now Remington Arms Co. has won approval from the Federal Communications Commission to sell them domestically. Remington expects dozens of law enforcement groups to be buyers.
….. “What’s behind a door can get you killed,” said Sheriff Sam Page of Rockingham County, N.C. Page field-tested EyeBalls and determined that “it gives my guy in the field an edge.”
Police can expect to pay $4,800 for two EyeBalls, whose batteries require recharging after about two hours of use, and the corresponding video monitoring equipment. Replacement EyeBalls will run about $1,700. Page said that was affordable for “even a small agency like mine.”

Quebec’s Lawyers Are Mimicking Milberg Weiss’s US Class-Action Tactics

The law firm that was the king of shareholder “strike suits” in the 1990s has apparently inspired an international expansion of its litigious tactics:

Class reaction
Filing class action suits is at such a fevered pitch, lawyers are racing each other to the courthouse

NICOLAS VAN PRAET, The Gazette
Published: Saturday, December 10, 2005

….. The business of class actions in Quebec has reached such a fevered pitch that lawyers are racing to file suits. Some firms are using the same clients for unrelated proceedings. All of which begs the question: Who is really benefitting from this growing industry anyway?
“You could be forgiven for asking: ‘What’s going on here?’” said Francois Lebeau, a lawyer with Unterberg, Labelle, Lebeau & Morgan, one of the city’s original class action practices.
“There are a lot of new firms deciding to get into the business. Everyone wants a piece of it.”
Quebec is often called class action heaven.
It is the only place on the continent where taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize lawyer fees so potential plaintiffs don’t have to pay.
It’s also the province where launching a class action is considered easiest.
Recent changes to Quebec’s code of civil procedure, which nixed the need for petitioners to file affidavits, has sped up the process, although that doesn’t necessarily mean judges are awarding more payouts. Recent statistics show courts here reject about 45 per cent of class action requests.
Still, the requests are multiplying.
Since they were first instituted in Quebec in 1979, roughly 650 class action lawsuits have been filed. In the last three years, 134 were filed in Montreal alone, including 52 so far this year. That’s roughly one every week.
Lawyers, bound by a first-come-first-served rule, often scramble to assemble their cases and race each other to the courthouse.
Some say that means they’re also cutting corners and filing suits that aren’t necessarily well-prepared.
….. The Quebec Bar Association’s code of ethics forbids lawyers to actively seek out people who may have legal claims.
And yet, not only is it done regularly, but a judge essentially okayed the practice in a 2004 decision called Tardif vs. Hyundai, said Montreal lawyer Bruce Johnston, who championed that case.
You can’t blame the petitioner with the fact that the idea for the class action came from the lawyer, Johnston said.
“Lawyers do have a role to play as an entrepreneur in that respect,” he said.
“The government really has allowed and encouraged lawyers to act as a private attorney-general seeking out cases where there’s something illegal being done.”
You don’t really have to look hard to find class actions, said lawyer Jeff Orenstein, who sued Labatt.
“They kind of find you,” he said. “Consumers (and citizens) are getting abused.”
….. In the U.S., the situation can be much more extreme.
New York firm Milberg Weiss set up a system where as soon as the stock price of a company falls more than a certain percentage on the markets in one day, a class action suit is automatically filed.
The firm is now embroiled in an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office into allegations its lawyers paid kickbacks to people who served as professional plaintiffs.
Some Quebec lawyers work with consumer groups like Option Consommateurs and Union des Consommateurs to jointly find petitioners and spearhead cases.
Firms that have made their name in the business say they get a lot of calls.
Others put out feelers with their network of contacts to get clients. In one recent case, a Montreal lawyer recruited another lawyer to sue over her defective iPod.
Nothing wrong with that, said Steve Whitter, a lawyer who recently filed a suit against Rogers Wireless over roaming fees.
“Part of the philosophy behind class actions is to even the paying field so that one big corporation cannot, by a process of pennies per person, make money that it is not entitled to get. One of the ways in which you prevent that is you reward attorneys for thinking or bringing these suits to justice.”
The proliferation of class action suits in Quebec in recent years means more consumers are finding retribution, said Sylvie Champagne, a research lawyer for the Quebec Bar Association.
On the other hand, she said the legal community is openly questioning whether the original purpose of class action – facilitating claims for a small sum of money most people wouldn’t bother to try to get back on their own – is being distorted by much larger claims.
The dollar amounts involved in some recent cases are certainly eye-popping.
Plaintiffs in the case of Cecilia Letourneau vs. Imperial Tobacco, Rothmans Benson & Hedges and JTI MacDonald have a total claim estimated at $10 billion.
….. That means millions of dollars in potential fees for lawyers on both sides. And a huge potential headache for companies and other class action targets.
Businesses are fighting back.
Some are pushing mandatory arbitration clauses into consumer contracts to force out-of-court settlements.
Some are revamping their advertisements and insurance policies to make them sue-proof. Others are watching lawsuits being filed in the U.S. to correct their business practices before anyone gets sued here.
A group of banks is now challenging the constitutionality of Quebec’s consumer protection act, on which many class actions are based.
“There’s a real danger that Quebec could become much more litigious than it already is,” said Pierre Boucher, an economist with Montreal consultancy Marcon-DDM.
The risk is that the plaintiffs, and pressure groups will deliberately try to identify sectors of consumer activity or entire swaths of companies where there’s money to be made, he said.
….. Fredy Adams, a class action lawyer who’s sued several major companies, including Wal-Mart, Bell Canada and GM, says his clients use the the courts because they don’t want to be had and they do believe it’s their best recourse.
“These are not people who are sitting at home with nothing to do looking for a quick buck,” he said.
“One of my clients told a judge that it’s costing her more in parking to show up for court than the amount of her claim. It’s a matter of principle.”

This does not bode well for Quebec’s economy, especially as it is “the only place on the continent where taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize lawyer fees so potential plaintiffs don’t have to pay.” Many companies don’t have to do business there, and if things keep up as they are, they won’t. It also appears more than a little likely, based on the same “victimized” consumers being involved in multiple cases, that these “victims” are getting some form of compensation other than their share of the class-action settlement. This is illegal in the US, and is the basis for the US government’s current investigation of Milberg Weiss. I would expect that the tactic is also illegal in Canada.
___________________________

Previous related posts:
Nov. 18 – Update: Investigation into Illegal Payments to Shareholder-Suit Plaintiffs
Aug. 19 – Update: Investigation Is Gaining Steam; Only the WSJ Cares
June 27 – Payoffs to Shareholder Suit Plaintiffs Alleged

“Smart Growth” As an Existing-Homeowner Investment Strategy

Filed under: Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 11:02 am

Plenty of think tanks predicted in the late 1990s that home prices would go up at a rate far outpacing inflation if “smart growth” initiatives took hold in a significant number of areas.

Well, here we are. One example is Metro Washington (HT Below the Beltway):

Economists increasingly are concluding that the shortage of affordable housing in Washington and other major U.S. cities on the East and West coasts is a result more of man-made restrictions on development than high construction costs or other market forces.
“It simply takes too long and is too expensive to move through the development process,” said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wachovia Securities, pointing at “smart growth, slow growth and no growth” movements in many of the same areas where the population and demand for housing are growing the fastest.
What many economists have been proclaiming as a “bubble” in Washington and other high-cost areas can be mostly explained by the restrictions on development, combined with a rush to homeownership by renters taking advantage of low interest rates, he said.
The restrictions have mounted as homeowners have grown more powerful and more willing to use their power to stop or greatly restrict development in their neighborhoods through the political and regulatory processes and the courts, according to a study published recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Since 1970, Washington and other coastal cities where housing prices have exploded have seen “a significant increase in the ability of residents to block new projects,” transforming vast swaths of the cities into “homeowners’ cooperatives” that are no longer open to growth, said Edward L. Glaeser, Harvard economist and one the study’s authors.

Very clever. In the name of “quality of life,” what those restricting development are doing is simply reducing the supply of available housing. Reduce supply in the face of persistent demand and you get…. rising prices for existing homeowners, and huge difficulties for potential first-time homebuyers (does anyone even build “starter homes” any more?).

It’s a great investment strategy for existing homeowners. Whether it’s good public policy is debatable. One thing development restrictions definitely lead to is first-time and cash-strapped buyers heading as far out into the countryside as they can to find housing they can actually afford. Then they get to listen to elitist homeowners in the inner rings decry the “sprawl” and “waste” of gasoline caused by the long commutes that the development restrictions they put into place caused.

If True, This Changes Everything about the Embryonic Stem Cell Debate

Filed under: Marvels,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 9:31 am

Embryonic stem cells may be unnecessary:

Tuesday, December 13, 2005
U of L reports stem cell breakthrough
Adult cells found in mice can transform like embryonic ones

By Laura Ungar, The Louisville Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE – University of Louisville researchers have coaxed stem cells from adult mice to change into brain, nerve, heart and pancreatic cells. That could lead to treatments for human diseases and end the debate over embryonic stem cells.

“We have found a counterpart for embryonic stem cells in adult bone marrow. This could negate the ethical concerns,” said Dr. Mariusz Ratajczak, leader of the research team and director of the stem-cell biology program at U of L’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center.

The next step is to replicate the experiment with similar cells identified in adult humans.

“It’s huge,” said Ryan Reca, one of the researchers. “It’s an amazing discovery.”

Others agreed, although they, like Ratajczak, cautioned that it’s early in the research process and that more study is needed.

If the cells from adult humans are found to act like those in mice, and other scientists can duplicate the process on a larger scale, the discovery goes from “very important” to “incredibly important,” said Dr. Stephen Emerson, chief of hematology/oncology at the University of Pennsylvania, where Ratajczak used to work.

It could lead to expanded research and “be transforming,” he said.

“This is a very important first step,” said Scott Whittemore, scientific director of U of L’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center.

Eithical and moral concerns aside (though I agree with those who oppose the use of embryonic stem cells), I’ve always thought of adult stem cell research (ASCR) as the blocking and tackling that needs to get done to win the game, and which has a greater chance of meaningful success. By contrast, because of the temperamental nature of embryonic stem cells, it has always seemed to me that a series of Hail Mary passes would have to be completed for any kind of breakthrough that would translate into human treatment to become reality. So it has alway seemed to me that ASCR would bring about the best short-term AND long-term results.

Since the area has become so politicized, the reactions of the players will be very interesting to watch.

Bizzy’s AM Coffee Biz-Econ Links (121405)

Filed under: Economy,Scams — Tom @ 8:02 am

Confidence Up

My prediction (well, guess) that this Christmas shopping season might be the period when the blackout of good news about the economy gets busted got another boost last Friday–with yet another one of those “beat expectations” reports:

Univ. Michigan: Consumer Sentiment Improving in Dec.
Friday, December 09, 2005

NEW YORK — U.S. consumer sentiment improved in early December more than economists had expected, helped by falling gasoline prices and continuing job growth, the University of Michigan said on Friday.

The University of Michigan’s preliminary December index of consumer sentiment rose to 88.7 from November’s final reading of 81.6, according to sources who saw the subscription-only report.

Economists polled by Reuters on average had predicted an increase to 85.5.

The survey’s expectations component increased sharply to 77.3 for early December from 69.6 in November.

The index of current conditions rose to 106.6 from 100.2 in November.

The Fed May Be Near the End of Its Rate-Raising

Good. They’ve gone far enough.

Hoodia Hooey

Appetite-suppressing claims made by promoters of the product are suspect at best:

With another three weeks of holiday treats ahead, what could sound more appealing than an all-natural product that dulls your appetite with no side effects? Hoodia Gordonii — an African plant extract racking up drugstore and Internet sales — claims to be just that. But doctors who treat obesity say there’s only the barest indication of proof that this diet supplement works, and even if it does, many of the pills now on sale contain little or none of the active ingredient.

One thing I wish the people promoting Hoodia would suppress is their urge to send spam e-mails that are clever enough to get past my e-mail program’s junk filter.

Positivity: It’s a Wonderful Life in Seneca Falls, NY This Time of Year

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 6:12 am

The townspeople believe it was the inspiration for the Frank Capra classic:

(more…)

Is There Another Party Besides the Republicans?

Filed under: MSM Biz/Other Bias,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 12:01 am

One has to wonder after reading two Associated Press articles.

The first, not attributed is about the Detroit Mayoral vote recount. Two Democrats are involved in the contested result. Neither candidate’s party affiliation is named.

The second , by AP’s Susan Gamboa, is about Prosecutor Ronnie Earle issuing “subpoenas for bank records and other information of a defense contractor involved in the bribery case of a California congressman” in the case of Tom Delay.

Setting aside the fact that Randy Cunningham is a FORMER congressman (properly identified later), no mention is made of Mr. Earle’s Democrat affiliation. But Mr. Delay’s “Texans for a Republican Majority” gets a mention. Additionally, one of the later paragraphs states that “Earle alleges that DeLay and two coconspirators funneled $190,000 in corporate contributions through the Texas political committee and an arm of the National Republican Committee to seven GOP state legislative candidates.”

Mr. Earle’s deeply partisan past, including his failed attempt to prosecute freshly-elected Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the early 1990s, remain totally ignored by the partisan press.

(Cross posted at NewsBusters)