Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why Not Just Walk Away from a Home?, February 13, 2008 · The Web site for You Walk Away is cheery and reassuring. There's a photo of a happy family in a park, smiling. Another family, also smiling, is packing up boxes.

"Are you stressed out about mortgage payments?" asks the site rhetorically. "Is foreclosure right for you?" it queries, but doesn't wait for an answer. "You are not alone — over 2.9 million homes have foreclosed in the last three years," it says. The not-so-subtle message: Foreclosure need not be a shameful, life-ruining experience. In fact, the company will gladly hold your hand through the foreclosure process—for a fee, of course.

Foreclosure, we're told, is a last resort, an option that no responsible homeowner would ever choose. But some distressed homeowners — no one knows exactly how many — are doing just that. They're voluntarily walking away from their mortgages, engaging in a practice the mortgage industry calls "ruthless default."

But is it really ruthless — or just good businesses sense? Some economists argue it's definitely the latter.

Sometimes, they say, walking away from your mortgage makes economic sense, especially for homeowners who find themselves "upside down" — that is, they owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth. In those cases, "voluntary foreclosures are not by themselves evidence of a newfound irresponsibility on Americans' part," says Nicole Gelinas, writing in The Wall Street Journal .

Separating the economics of foreclosure from the morality (and the stigma) is not easy, though.

"We need a culture of responsible consumers and homeowners," says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, echoing a deep-seated American belief that one should always honor financial obligations.

The current housing crisis is different, argue some economists: Since some financial institutions sold these loans in a deceptive manner — for example, by approving people for loans they couldn't really afford — then why should homeowners feel obliged to honor their commitments?

The Virtues of Self-Interest

Most homeowners avoid foreclosure for selfish, and not necessarily moral, reasons. Foreclosure leaves a large black mark on a homeowner's credit rating. It might be as long as 10 years before they can qualify for another mortgage.

But Gelinas — a financial analyst and contributing editor of City Journal — argues that if enough people walk away from their homes, then banks won't blacklist all of them.

"Many walkers are going to want to buy houses again some ay; and when they do, lenders are going to want to make money lending them money to do so (hopefully requiring a good down payment)," she says.

One thing that is certain: Foreclosures are on the rise. The Mortgage Bankers Association estimates that roughly 900,000 Americans were in the foreclosure process as of Sept. 30, 2007 — the most recent data available. That's an increase of 72 percent from the same period a year ago. Cities in California, Ohio, Florida and Michigan posted the highest foreclosure rates in the U.S., according to RealtyTrac, a private firm.

Traditionally, most people who foreclose on their homes do so because they lost their jobs or were hit with unexpected medical expenses. But the subprime mortgage crisis is different. Seven out of 10 people foreclosing on their homes are healthy and gainfully employed, according to John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. They simply can't afford to make their monthly payments.

Helping Others Walk Away

The spurt in foreclosures has spawned a cottage industry of firms who smell a business opportunity amid the misery. You Walk Away is getting the most attention, with some 25,000 daily hits to its Web site. (The firm won't disclose how many customers it has.)

For a fee of $995, the company offers services such as a "protection kit." For instance, they'll send a letter that "stops lenders from harassing the homeowner." They'll also put distressed homeowners in touch with a lawyer and an accountant to discuss their options. They'll advise people in the midst of foreclosure how long they can legally live in their homes, tempting people with the prospect that, "You WILL be able to stay in your home for up to 8 months or more without having to pay anything to your lender!"

Chad Ruyle, the company's co-founder, says they are not encouraging people to pursue foreclosure but merely helping them through the process once they have made that decision.

"We're not causing the foreclosure problem," he says. "The problem was already there." Or, as his business partner Jon Maddux puts it, "You can't blame a divorce lawyer for a divorce."

Red Flags

Firms like You Walk Away, though, have raised red flags with credit counselor and consumer watchdogs. Ellen Schloemer, director of research at the Center for Responsible Lending, says borrowers would be better off hiring their own attorneys and accountants, rather than relying on those provided by You Walk Away.

"Just look at the picture [on the company's Web site]," Schloemer says. "It shows people enjoying a day in the park. But foreclosure is no day in the park."

It takes a decade to recover from a foreclosure, she says, and there's not much anyone can do about that. The company, she says, paints a misleading picture of the foreclosure process.

"The real solution is to help people before they're forced into foreclosure," she says.

John Taylor, of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, says he's concerned that the company might not help customers explore all of their alternatives before going into foreclosure.

"I would rather see people who are facing foreclosure fighting to keep their home, and keep it as long as possible, because help is on the way," he says.

On Tuesday, in fact, the Bush administration announced a new initiative aimed at helping homeowners about to lose their homes. For qualified homeowners, it will freeze the foreclosure process for 30 days. Dubbed "Project Lifeline," the new program will be available to people who have taken out all types of mortgages, not just the high-cost subprime loans that have been the focus of previous relief efforts.

Those efforts, of course, are about avoiding foreclosures, not facilitating them.

"Walking away from one's home should be the absolute last resort," says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "However desperate a situation might become for a homeowner, that does not relieve us of our responsibilities."

But there is one category of homeowner, she says, where foreclosure does make sense: people who bought their homes "with their hearts and not their heads."

"For people who may never be able to afford their home, then walking away is a viable option," she says. "If long term, you're not going to be able to sustain the mortgage payment, then you're fooling yourself and should get out of that situation and move on to life after foreclosure."

Original here

BREAKING: Barrel of oil hits $100.10, closes at $100.01

The closing price for a barrel of oil today was $100.01 and the intra-day high was $100.10. These prices are the highest a barrel of oil has ever traded or closed. No single news event brought the price of oil to these new highs but there are concerns OPEC will tighten supplies next month. We will have more as this story develops.

Original here

Les dessous de l’information mondiale-Downside World News

Breaking News: Serbian Security Forces Enter Kosovo!

This article appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday February 20 2008 on p20 of the International section. It was last updated at 00:44 on February 20 2008.

Up to 1,000 men, some suspected of being members of the Serbian Ministry of Interior police, crossed into northern Kosovo yesterday amid rising fears that minority Serbs living in the new state’s north would attempt effectively to partition Kosovo along the Ibar River.

After two days of rapidly rising tensions between Serbs and Albanians following Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia on Sunday, eyewitnesses counted close to 200 cars and buses crossing from southern Serbia full of men.

In a day of high drama, masked Serbs also torched two border posts separating Serbia from Kosovo, located at Jarnije and Banja about 18 miles north of Mitrovica, with bulldozers and plastic explosives.Nato troops later closed down the roads leading to the checkpoints, cutting off the only link between northern Kosovo and Serbia.

Several incidents were reported overnight, including masked attackers throwing grenades at UN and Albanian-owned buildings. No one was reported injured.

UN and Nato officials seemed to have been taken largely by surprise by yesterday’s events, which saw KFor troops being sent in to rescue personnel trapped at the border posts.

Protesters also tipped over metal sheds that housed Kosovo’s customs service and sent them sliding down a hill and into a river. They also vandalised and set fire to passport control booths. “It was very dangerous and the police had to withdraw and call for help from Nato peacekeepers,” said Veton Elshani, a spokesman for Kosovo’s multi-ethnic police force.

In Belgrade, the Serbian government minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, hailed the attacks, saying: “Today’s action is in accordance with the general Serbian government policies.

“Belgrade has the intention to take over the customs in northern Kosovo,” Samardzic told private B92 television. “The customs points were intended to become part of Kosovo’s state border and we are not going to let that happen.”

The attacks and arrival of the convoys from Serbia were an ominous reminder of the enduring potential for violence in the new nation of Kosovo as it embarks on European-supervised independence.

The EU’s new envoy, Pieter Feith, arrived in Pristina yesterday, accompanied by the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to mark the beginning of Kosovo’s new era. Feith will lead a “stability mission” of 1,800 EU police and legal experts who will run the country’s court system for the next few years.

In the coming days, Feith, a Dutch diplomat with extensive Balkan experience, will also take over leadership of the International Civilian Office, which will give him the power to overturn legislation and sack Kosovan officials.

European officials insisted he would try to keep a low profile and use his powers only in extreme circumstances when, for instance, the country’s democracy or minority rights were in jeopardy.

Yesterday’s incidents were an illustration of the central problem facing Feith and the Albanian majority government in Pristina - the refusal of Kosovo’s Serb minority and the Belgrade government to acknowledge the former province’s sovereignty.

Elsewhere in the Serb-dominated north witnesses also spoke of police stations once occupied by the joint Serb-Albanian Kosovo police service now displaying the Serb flag. The fears that Serbia is intending to put its police force into the north follow rumours being circulated among Kosovo police service officers in Mitrovica that Serb members are planning to resign en masse in the coming days.

The attacks and the arrival of a convoy from Serbia come as further demonstrations are planned against the declaration of independence in Mitrovica and Serbian cities this week.

Original here

Deputy tasers high school student against direct orders

Outside a Maryland high school gym last Wednesday, sophomore Brandon Bennett got into a small altercation with a fellow student. It was after a basketball game and tempers were high, but the the two were separated by officials and students without much problem. Only then did things get really violent.

According to Julius Bennett, the student's father, Deputy Anthony Lenzi fired a Taser at his son after being told twice by a senior officer it was not necessary.

"He left two puncture wounds just above his heart in his chest," says Bennett. "And [Brandon] said to me that he was in quite a bit of pain because he could feel electric shocks going throughout his whole body."

The father says he has written proof Sgt. Mathew Kempel twice ordered Lenzi to holster the weapon, but Lenzi fired anyway, hitting the teen in the chest.

"Brandon did absolutely nothing wrong," says Bennett, "and there was no reason to use that type of force on my son."

The Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Office says Lenzi has been reassigned to internal duties while authorities investigate the allegations. Bennett is hoping fair punishment is given.

"I will not be satisfied until I know that Deputy Lenzi will be in a position to never to this to anyone else's child ever again."

This video is from, broadcast February 19, 2008.

Original here

Information will be free: Wikileaks still up, despite order

Swiss banks have always taken their privacy seriously, and the Bank Julius Baer is no exception. On Friday, the bank obtained a US temporary restraining order against the site Wikileaks, which currently hosts a clutch of documents alleged to come from inside the bank. In addition, the judge issued a permanent injunction against Dynadot, the registrar for, demanding that the site's information be locked and its domain name scoured from the Internet.

Bank Julius Baer calls itself the "leading dedicated wealth manager in Switzerland," and it's not good for dedicated wealth managers to be linked with scandal. The bank was unhappy about material hosted on Wikileaks that appears to show corruption in the bank's Cayman Islands branch. It filed a federal lawsuit against the site in San Francisco and has so far been on a roll in the case.

Julius Baer is no fan
of Wikileaks

On February 15, the bank obtained a permanent injunction against Dynadot that requires the registrar to "lock the domain name" and to "disable the domain name and account to prevent access to and any changes from being made to the domain name and account information." does not currently resolve.

The order isn't particularly effective (the site can be accessed simply by going to,, and, among others), but the fact that it can happen seems incredible. Rather than just put a hold on the particular documents in question, a judge has attempted instead to remove the entire site from the Internet. Wikileaks was not present at the hearing where the decision was made, saying that it was notified only by e-mail and given just a few hours' notice. As is common in such situations, the order was essentially written by the bank and then adopted by the judge.

In addition to the Dynadot block, Wikileaks itself is ordered to remove all documents from the bank that "are internal non-public company documents" and to do so "whether or not such documents and information are authentic, semi-altered, semi-fraudulent or forged."

Based on the correspondence between Wikileaks and a US lawyer representing the bank, the bank appears to be claiming copyright over these internal documents. A lawyer for the bank complained repeatedly about the lack of a designated DMCA agent for Wikileaks and warned the site, "You act at your own peril" and "govern yourselves accordingly." (Biggest question raised by the letter: real lawyers actually write this sort of stage villain stuff?)

The restraining order against Wikileaks is temporary, and in the order Judge Jeffrey White notes that the group can fight the block during a February 29 hearing. Wikileaks says that it has several lawyers in San Francisco willing to work pro bono on the case.

Original here

Oil breaks $100, hits new all-time high

NEW YORK (AP) -- Oil prices hit new record highs Tuesday as a Texas refinery fire and fears of an OPEC production cut pushed crude to settle at over $100 a barrel for the first time ever.

U.S. crude for March delivery jumped $4.51 to settle at $100.01 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, topping the previous settlement record of $99.62 set Jan. 2.

Oil also hit a new all-time trading high of $100.10 a barrel, besting the previous high of $100.9 set Jan. 3.

A weekend refinery explosion in Texas and the possibility that OPEC will cut production next month are driving prices higher, although analysts say there isn't a single factor to explain the move.

The refinery in Big Spring, Texas is owned by Alon USA. It processes nearly 70,000 barrels of oil a day. Officials say it could be closed for as long as two months.

"The refinery fire in Texas is making people a little concerned," said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research Inc. in Amherst, Mass.

March gasoline jumped 11.4 cents to $2.6078 a gallon, and March heating oil rose 10.41 cents to $2.751 a gallon.

The dollar fell Tuesday, giving investors another reason to buy oil. Crude futures offer a hedge against a falling dollar, and oil futures bought and sold in dollars are more attractive to foreign investors when the greenback is falling.

For the moment, investors appear to have put aside concerns about the economy that have sent oil prices down into the mid-$80 range twice since crude peaked above $100 last month. Traders are instead focused on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which will meet early next month to map out production plans, and Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez made conflicting statements this weekend about the country's legal dispute with Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM, Fortune 500)

OPEC could move to cut production in the second quarter, typically a period of low demand, though many analysts feel that's unlikely. In Venezuela, Chavez said he was not serious about an earlier threat to cut oil sales to the United States, but also threatened to sue Exxon Mobil. The world's largest oil company is fighting Venezuela's nationalization of an oil project, and recently convinced several courts to freeze $12 billion in Venezuelan oil assets.

None of the news is enough to justify a nearly $3 a barrel jump in the price of crude, said James Cordier, founder of, a Tampa, Fla., trading firm. Echoing other analysts, Cordier argued that the oil market is in the process of "decoupling" from oil's supply and demand fundamentals. He said investors drawn by the falling dollar and momentum are pushing oil prices sharply higher despite reports last week from the Energy Department, OPEC and the International Energy Agency which all cut oil demand growth predictions for this year.

"Everyone concurs that we've got smaller demand coming in the U.S.," Cordier said.

Retail gas prices, meanwhile, jumped 1.8 cents to a national average price of $3.032 a gallon Tuesday, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. Retail prices, which typically lag the futures market, are following oil prices higher. The Energy Department expects gas prices to peak near $3.40 a gallon this spring.

Other energy futures also rose Tuesday. March natural gas jumped 30.1 cents to $8.961 per 1,000 cubic feet. Analysts said prices were supported by forecasts for cooler weather, but that futures were also following oil prices higher.

In London, Brent crude for April delivery rose $3.25 to $98.16 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

Original here

Ebay Sellers Boycott gains traction; competing sites grow

In the early morning of January 29th, 2008, President of eBay North America announced coming changes to the eBay Marketplace. As would be expected, all changes were presented with the idea of, “improving the overall experience for our customers - both buyers and sellers.” The categories of change were laid out by Mr. Cobb; fundamental changes for pricing, seller standards, incentives and Feedback. You can read the full unedited version of Bill Cobb’s eBay changes announcement here at eBay. If the changes announced didn’t seem like enough, Bill Cobb also revealed he would be leaving eBay and this was his last announcement he would provide.

At first there were some stories and blogs announcing that eBay was dropping their prices and that users could expect to save money. It didn’t take long for eBay veterans to closely analyze the announced changes and reveal that they saw a big problem with the fee changes. While it is true that eBay does plan to lower insertion fees for auction and fixed price listings 25 to 50 percent, they are increasing final value fees to more than cover the reduction.

In addition to the fees being increased on the back-end, eBay has also passed some tight measures concerning their own online payment processor, PayPal. With specific types of transactions performed through the eBay Marketplace, eBay has stated it will hold the PayPal payments for up to 21 days. In addition to holding payments longer, PayPal is also being forced onto a wider group of eBay sellers that have low feedback or are new to the eBay Marketplace.

While eBay sellers are definitely upset about the fee increases which have happened many times before, the one thing that seems to really have sellers up in arms is the feedback changes. Feedback is essentially what eBay has been built on from it’s inception and is really one of the parts that made eBay one of the first adopters of the Web 2.0 environment. Feedback abilities will now be limited to sellers so that they can only leave positive feedback for buyers. Buyers will still be able to leave positive and negative feedback.

Ebay CEO John DonahoeThe new CEO of eBay, John Donahoe could really only come up with one good thing to say about eBay’s feedback change, he stated It’s the, “First time in eBay’s history for removal of negative feedback” in an interview with AuctionBytes’, Ina Steiner. For the full transcript interview with John Donahoe you can read it over at AuctionByes here. Ina Steiner brought up the fact that eBay sellers could be blackmailed into having to provide refunds or other bonuses if a buyer threatened with negative feedback. In the past, sellers have had the ammunition that they could also leave negative feedback. With nothing to give them leverage, seller’s will probably find themselves being gamed by bad buyers.

An interesting piece from the interview with John Donahoe over at AuctionBytes comes close to the end of the interview. In response to a question from Ina Steiner as to what the incentive was for sellers to stay at eBay Mr. Donahoe states, “The incentive for sellers to stay on eBay is that they are continuing to sell great volumes on eBay. This is so, again, we had the largest number of traffic in the 4th quarter.” While we’re not saying that Alexa’s traffic metrics are perfect, they do provide a good general look at traffic trends and looking at eBay’s 4th quarter it’s hard to see what was being referenced. As you can see from the included graphic, traffic doesn’t seem to be largest number of anything. In fact, it looks like the 4th quarter was the worst in terms of traffic in eBay’s last 7 years. You can analyze this traffic in traffic rank, pageviews or reach and they all look terrible. The first graphic is the 7 year traffic trend and the second graphic is a 3 year traffic trend to show you more detail.

With all of the changes eBay is making, you can expect that some sellers have been getting upset and threatening a boycott. There have been boycotts before in eBay’s history and in all truthfulness, they have mostly been a lot of talk and not much action. Ebay BoycottThis time around however, there seems to be more uprising brewing thanks to petition sites like this one, an established website for PowerSellers to communicate called and even YouTube videos like this one and this one

cropping up to spread the message.

The uproar and upset eBay users have been dismissed by eBay Corporate as expected and nothing they are actually worried about. Interesting enough though, eBay has been running a 20 cent listing promotion, so that the promotion will land increased listings during the planned eBay boycott. In addition to running this promotion, eBay has also announced more fee reductions for sellers involved in media categories like Video Games, Movies, Music and Books. With an increase in listings and sellers being sucked in by great discounts, eBay is more likely hoping to show that the site’s traffic and activity increased during the boycott.

If we reference Alexa traffic data one more time and look at a closer view of the end of January and beginning of February you’ll see yet again another decline. In fact, in the days building up to the planned boycott eBay’s traffic rank has taken a dive. The hard data shows that eBay users upset about the recent changes just may be making an impact on eBay’s bottom line. If that happens, eBay could be forced to address some of the issues in their policy changes for the first time in eBay history.

It doesn’t seem to be a loss for everyone in the online auction world. There are eBay competitors that have sprung up over the years and this time of year seems to be doing wonders for them. A look at numbers released about shows they increased their new sellers by 7,500 within 7 days of eBay’s announced changes. Another competitor called has stated they saw 1,400 new sellers within a few days after eBay’s announcement. While these sites still pail in comparison to eBay’s user-base they are seeing strong growth and are providing refuge for sellers that are fed up. One thing you may find surprising about eBay’s competitors, is one of the biggest differences of all. allows sellers to pay a flat-rate fee to list items on their site, while allows sellers to list all of their items for free. Both are novel ideas in a competitive marketplace that seems to be dominated by the innovator of online auctions, eBay.

Whether the boycott of eBay’s service forces eBay to reconsider some of their policy and fee changes, one thing is clear, websites built around communities are not always in control as much as the owners would like to believe. With Web 2.0 websites growing in popularity and dominating the Internet scene, user’s are gaining more control to let their voices be heard by video, audio and commentary that was once lost in a dark corner on the web.

Original here

Banks borrowing billions from Federal Reserve

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Banks in the United States have been quietly borrowing "massive amounts" from the U.S. Federal Reserve in recent weeks, using a new measure the Fed introduced two months ago to help ease the credit crunch, according to a report on the web site of The Financial Times.

The newspaper said the use of the Fed's Term Auction Facility (TAF), which allows banks to borrow at relatively attractive rates against a wide range of their assets, saw borrowing of nearly $50 billion of one-month funds from the Fed by mid-February.

The Financial Times said the move has sparked unease among some analysts about the stress developing in opaque corners of the U.S. banking system and the banks' growing reliance on indirect forms of government support.

The Financial Times:

The use of the Fed’s Term Auction Facility, which allows banks to borrow at relatively attractive rates against a wider range of their assets than previously permitted, saw borrowing of nearly $50bn of one-month funds from the Fed by mid-February.

US officials say the trend shows that financial authorities have become far more adept at channelling liquidity into the banking system to alleviate financial stress, after failing to calm money markets last year.

However, the move has sparked unease among some analysts about the stress developing in opaque corners of the US banking system and the banks’ growing reliance on indirect forms of government support.

“The TAF ... allows the banks to borrow money against all sort of dodgy collateral,” says Christopher Wood, analyst at CLSA. “The banks are increasingly giving the Fed the garbage collateral nobody else wants to take ... [this] suggests a perilous condition for America’s banking system.”

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Pictures From Our Readers: Ill-Advised Business Names

The response to our second reader photo challenge was great, and we got a ton of hilarious submissions! We’re posting most of them here, and all of them on our Flickr page. Enjoy!

Anatomically-inclined business names
We had so many submissions in this category, we were actually able to organize them by body part:

We received two pictures of Massachusetts liquor stores named “Bunghole,” from Cody (above, in Peabody) and Sabrina (below, in Salem). According to Wikipedia, “a bunghole is a hole bored in a liquid-tight barrel,” though it’s been used as naughty slang since at least the 13th century (famously making an appearance in Dante’s Inferno).


We also got two pictures of the same business, from readers Kati and Laura — the unfortunately-named Analtech in Newark, Delaware. (I’m sure it’s pronounced an-AL-tech, guys. Jeez, grow up!)

Jocelyn sent us a snap of Oregon’s own T&A Supply Co., which judging from their name, keeps Nevada well-stocked with pasties and stripper poles.

This package store is just outside of Atlanta. (Thanks, Lucy!)

Furniture guaranteed to keep you up at night. (Heh. Sorry.)

Puntastic business names
The hair weaves in Pine Bluff, Arkansas are beyond belief. (Thanks to Darcie!)

This had to be intentional. Right? (From Josh and Joanna Burress, taken near Kokomo, Indiana.)

Caroline Hanke sent in this picture of a really full-service gas station.

Unfortunate business names
From reader Katherine: tanning for the truly pale.

Kelly found this sign in southern Indiana. (Just because you own the place doesn’t mean you have to name it after yourself.)

From Mindy, the least popular furniture store in Mason City, Iowa.

Joe Warner writes that this business in Acworth, Georgia was torn down a few years ago. I guess the formula just wasn’t working.

Asian restaurants

There could’ve been thousands of pictures in this column, but we liked these three the best. From J.J. in Poughkeepsie:

In Bath, Maine (thanks, Austin):

Reader Christine pointed out this photo of San Diego’s own Pho King (it’s pronounced fuh), taken by the gourmands at mmm-yoso!

There are lots of these places in Los Angeles, but apparently people in other parts of the world (like reader Tori) think that donuts and Chinese food make strange platefellows:

Just plain odd
There’s really no other way to classify these. What were they thinking?

More weirdness from Darcie in Pine Bluff, Arkansas:

Discount caskets? (I hope they’re not used.) Thanks, Alyssa!

Sarah sent us this shot from Shreveport, Louisiana. She hoped this was a sign for an exterminator business, but needless to say, didn’t go inside to investigate.

Laura found this on vacation in Phoenix about 15 years ago. Cute!

Georgetown’s own Moby Dick Kabob. (Say that five times fast.) Thanks to Luz.

On-purpose weird business names
When you have no marketing budget, sometimes the best way to get the word out about your business is by giving it a ridiculous name. We’re pretty sure that’s what happened to these fine establishments.

From Kevin:

A Phillipsburg, Kansas restaurant found by Alyssa:

A guy who got tired of answering the question “what kind of stuff do you sell?” From Jocelyn:

More peculiarity from Pine Bluff:

A frozen yogurt place in Salt Lake (thanks Devora), whose motto appears to be “no spooning on Sundays!”

There seems to be a long-standing tradition of giving bizarre names to drinking establishments. Here are a few.

Nothing special about this Lancaster, Ohio saloon (thanks, Sheya):

Live nude cattle in Star Valley, Arizona. (Thanks, Susan.)

Both the name and logo of this business seem to celebrate drunk driving:

Just around the corner from the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City (thanks, Jessica):

Scientology abuses eBay's VeRO program to practice religious, price discrimination

By the time Bill (not his real name) left the Church of Scientology a few years ago, he had amassed quite a collection of Scientology material—mostly books, tapes, e-meters. But ex-members of Scientology (especially staff members) find themselves in a difficult spot in this regard when they leave Scientology: their books, tapes, and e-meters are only valued by Scientologists, who, quite inconveniently, are strongly discouraged (read: disallowed) from communicating with ex-members—as any ex-Scientologist will tell you.

Not surprisingly, he turned to eBay, where a Scientologist buyer can remain blissfully unaware that his seller is a declared suppressive person. But every time he attempts to sell his e-meter on eBay, the listing is removed within hours by the Church of Scientology, which claims that the listing violates their intellectual property rights. See screenshots of the auctions while they were up here [update; personal info redacted] and here, and respective "Invalid Item" eBay pages here and here. And it’s not just Bill—I’ve watched numerous e-meter listings from other sellers removed before they even receive a bid.

If you’re uninitiated to eBay, you’d probably think that for each of these removals, the Church of Scientology informs eBay of the violation of its rights, eBay considers the merits of their argument, and then only then does eBay yank the listing. But that’s not what happens at all. Instead, eBay effectively deputizes Scientology, which logs into eBay and removes the listings itself.

The mechanism that permits the Church of Scientology (and others) such broad access and discretion is called the Verified Rights Owner ("VeRO") Program. Membership in VeRO is obtained simply by submitting a form to eBay explaining that you are an Intellectual Property rights holder.

It should come as little surprise that VeRO members routinely overreach, as the cost of challenging a listing removal is almost always prohibitive. (See my paper on this subject here, and see the brave husband and wife exception to this rule here.) The VeRO Program makes a great deal of sense for some types of listings—counterfeit Rolexes and Gucci handbags appear on eBay with such frequent regularity that those companies would be hard pressed to handle these trademark violations any other way.

But Bill's e-meters (and the e-meters other ex-Scientologists have attempted to sell on eBay) are not counterfeits and do not violate the Church of Scientology's trademarks, patents, or copyrights. Some sellers have even included the serial number found at the bottom of each e-meter in their listings in order to authenticate them. There is no source confusion, as every seller whose e-meters have been removed have made it clear that they took the photo of the e-meter, and that they are not affiliated with the Church of Scientology. Patent law doesn't prevent the resale of patented items, and patent law barely covers e-meters anyway, the first having run out years ago and the 2000 patent only covering "improvements" on the "Quantum" e-meter. And copyright law barely applies here—all of the listings I've observed have been originally written, for one thing, and regardless, Scientology (from what I can gather) has only issued VeRO complaints under patent and trademark bases.

In short, the Church of Scientology is at least constructively aware that the e-meters being listed on eBay are authentic, and so have no basis under trademark—or under any other intellectual property basis, for removing these listings. What's actually going on here is that Scientology is abusing eBay's VeRO program, knowingly alleging Intellectual Property violations that clearly don't exist, so that they can limit the secondary market for e-Meters, controlling both the price and who can get them.

It shouldn’t shock anyone that Scientology is trying to limit (if not eliminate) the secondary marketplace for e-meters, since they have a strong motivation to control the price on e-meters from their own production line (they update to a newer more expensive model every few years), and a strong motivation to control to whom they're sold. The economic motivation should be clear enough—Scientology doesn't want what few members it has being exposed to a secondary market because it would undermine their monopoly on a prohibitively expensive and infrequently purchased item.

Scientology's other motivation for wanting to be the only game in town is intrinsically cultish—it has long perpetuated the idea that e-meters should never be used outside of the auspices of the Church. In other words, not only should Scientology be the sole sale source, but it should also be able to dictate every element of the post-sale environment—who can use it, how it can be used, etc. If e-meters are being sold on eBay, it doesn't know the purchaser and can't therefore control how and by whom it's used.

Indeed, the warning label at the bottom of each e-meter demonstrates the kind of control to which I’m referring. The need for a label came about after the FDA took offense at Scientology’s claim that the e-meter retained medical benefits; the court eventually agreed with the FDA and mandated a disclaimer, which has morphed from the original into the following:

By itself, this meter does nothing. It is solely for the guide of Ministers of the Church in Confessionals and pastoral counseling. The Electrometer is not medically or scientifically capable of improving the health or bodily function of anyone and is for religious use by students and Ministers of the Church of Scientology only. (emphasis added)
But if the Church of Scientology has no real legal basis by which to remove eBay listings of e-meters, why would it assert, under penalty of perjury (as it must do to use eBay’s VeRO program), that it has "good faith belief" that the listing they are removing constitutes an infringement? It's a roll of the dice no doubt, but the odds are in its favor that Bill—like almost anyone else similarly situated—will not sue to have the listing restored, litigation being profoundly cost prohibitive, especially against the Scientology litigation machine, even where the item removed could have sold for up to $5,000.

But Bill and the other similarly afflicted sellers are not without a legal basis for a complaint. It's possible to argue that Scientology is engaging in price fixing, tortious interference with a contract, misrepresentation, perjury, unfair competition, discriminatory business practices, and religious discrimination, to name a few off the top of my head. Scientology's intellectual property rights in its e-meter stop well short of being able to prevent a secondary market from existing, but eBay's VeRO program permits them to essentially do just that.

This is not a new development—it’s been going on for nearly 8 years, as this Slashdot story shows. But it’s high time eBay did something about it.

Original here

Wealth and Religiosity

I just saw this graph in the March 2008 Atlantic magazine.

It comes from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a survey of over 45,000 people.

Yellow is South and Central America; Green is the Middle East; Purple is Asia.

In the full report, they also compare the results to five years ago. Venezuela and Germany had the greatest increase in religiosity, whereas Ukraine and India the greatest decrease. And the consensus of 46 out of 47 countries is that religion should be kept separate from government policy.

Definition: Religiosity is measured using a three-item index ranging from 0-3, with 3 representing the maximum religious position. Respondents were given a +1 if they believe faith in God is necessary for morality; and +1 if they say religion is very important in their lives; and +1 if they pray at least once a day.

Original here

Is Marijuana Safer Than Alcohol?

The short answer is yes. There is no lethal dose of Marijuana as there is Alcohol, and no significant changes to brain structure. However, alcohol can severely damage brain function. Many Universities across the country including both Colorado State Universities and Appalachian State University have brought arguments before their schools in an attempt to equalize penalties for alcohol and marijuana consumption.

Marijuana is much safer than alcohol in terms of temporary impairment. While alcohol causes sever motor skill deficiency rendering one unable to drive or perform other coordinated tasks, marijuana does little other than slow these processes down.

Alcohol withdrawal is widely known as one of the biggest reasons it is hard to stop drinking. Marijuana however, has no physical withdrawals (other than the psychological withdrawal of not being high).

Alcohol tolerance increases substantially with abuse. While marijuana tolerance will increase with use, there is a much smaller difference between a pothead and first time smoker’s needs than there is an alcoholic and a first time drinker.

It is very difficult for Alcoholics to put the bottle down for good. Marijuana has been smoked by nearly 50% of all Americans, and only 1% of that number smoke regularly. Take the total number of citizens in the United States and figure how many people have tried alcohol, and how many are alcoholics, and you’ll be left with a figure 10 times that of marijuana.

Reinforcement is one of those qualities that it is hard to measure by taking a substance, but what it really means is potential for addiction. Marijuana has almost no potential for physical addiction (as stated in withdrawals) but can be psychologically addicting. Many marijuana users get used to the lifestyle and quitting the substance isn’t the problem, it’s the social life they have developed around it.

So overall marijuana is safer than alcohol, but much more inconvenient for the paper and oil companies that alcohol and tobacco. What does this mean? It means the drug czar, John Walters, gets tens of millions every year to spread the type of ignorance we are trying to fight. His latest episodes of marijuana propaganda include the myth that marijuana creates mental illness. This is supported by no psychologists in the field that I have read about or talked to, however it does seem that marijuana may bring forth underlying mental illnesses that already exist.

Original here