Friday, February 27, 2009

Revolutionizing Air Travel

Yahoo! News is reporting that Ryanair is mulling whether or not to implement a paid toilet system aboard its aircraft. Perhaps this is not so shocking considering other methods the airline uses to make additional revenue: charging roughly 5 euros for airport check-in (fair enough, it seems, although airport check-in is being phased out now), releasing a "girls of Ryanair" calendar (pictured left, the profits of which are to go toward charity), etc.

The article is quoted below:

"Irish carrier Ryanair, Europe's largest budget airline, might start charging passengers for using the toilet while flying, chief executive Michael O'Leary said on Friday.

'One thing we have looked at in the past and are looking at again is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in future,' he told BBC television.

He said this would not inconvenience passengers travelling without cash. 'I don't think there is anybody in history that has got on board a Ryanair aircraft with less than a pound.'

O'Leary has a reputation as a cost cutter, expanding Ryanair by offering low headline fares and charging extra for items such as additional luggage.

Last week, Ryanair announced it was to shut all check-in desks at airports and have passengers check in online instead.

'We're all about finding ways of raising discretionary revenue so we can keep lowering the cost of air travel,' he said. (Reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by Dan Lalor)"

So what's next, an oxygen tax?

I think charging to use the toilet is going a bit too far, although it is definitely a service nonetheless. But charging for it? What if someone doesn't have pounds or euros, but, say, Latvian lats or Swedish kronas? To be quite honest, when I travel I usually get my change in the country of destination, and only after usually exchanging recently received banknotes from an ATM at a local convenience store or hostel.

Such a move will result in many passengers waiting to use the toilet at their destination airport, so I think the marginal revenues for Ryanair won't be much, perhaps 20 pounds per long-haul flight.

But who knows, maybe I am wrong.

Time will tell.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

European Blackmail or Sheer Hypocrisy?

Reading various newspapers this week, both in print and online, it seems interesting how the EU is trying to influence several decisions of its neighbors, in particular those of Belarus.

Belarus is now playing a hard balancing act between its erstwhile, staunch ally Russia and the European Union. The quasi-dictatorial regime in Belarus knows that nearly one-half of its exports go to the EU, which it borders directly via Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, yet integrating politically to any degree was unheard of until last year.

Indeed, there was little need to do so until the financial crisis hit Russia, thereby hitting the country's global prestige. Belarus, thus (and, perhaps, not only thus), started looking for a way to finally put its much talked about "multi-vector" foreign policy into play.

It started to cozy up to the West by releasing the last of its political prisoners, most notably Alyaksandr Kazulin, a former presidential candidate, last spring. However, releasing political prisoners was only one of 12 conditions the EU laid out that Belarus implement in order to improve relations.

Since then, however, Minsk has made a surprising number of other steps toward the EU, the majority of which were largely cosmetic. Yet they are still noteworthy.

For one, Belarus's most popular semiweekly independent newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, has been returned to the state press distribution network, both for delivery via post and sale via kiosks. The same is true for another (weekly) newspaper, Nasha Niva. Another former presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, managed to register his Movement for Freedom, to the surprise of many. Other changes, such as the formation of various non-political state councils, have included members of the opposition for the first time. And, as a condition to securing a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, Belarus has liberalized some facets of its economy by devaluing the ruble, opening up to more foreign direct investment, and reducing a good amount of red tape.

Now the leadership of this Slavic country of 10 million, dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship" by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, wants to join the Council of Europe and the EU's Eastern Partnership program, which is an extension of the bloc's broader Neighborhood Policy. From the former, it was expelled after an infamous 1996 referendum that was deemed as neither free nor fair by the West; for the latter, it is keen to join the grouping, as it stands to benefit directly by potentially receiving several hundred million euros of gratuitous aid. For a country suffering from a severe economic crisis, it seems like a smart and timely move.

Yet the Council of Europe and EU have laid out several preconditions, both formally and informally, for Belarus to join these two separate groups. The Council of Europe openly demands that Belarus cancel the death penalty prior to being invited back, which the country has suggested it will do. Fair enough.

However, the EU has set much tougher and tacit conditions for Belarus as it concerns membership in the Eastern Partnership program, but it is trying to strike a balance of its own. For one, the EU is likely to relax travel sanctions against President Lukashenka and some, if not all, of his entourage, at least for six months, if he continues on the current path to democratization. A decision on this can be expected in the next six weeks. But, perhaps, not before Belarus agrees to follow the EU and not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries, which Mr. Lukashenka has stated the Belarusian Parliament will mull during its April 2 session. It appears that if Belarus agrees to not recognize the territories, then Mr. Lukashenka is likely to be invited to a May summit in Prague, where Belarus will formally join the bloc, but only under that precondition.

Isn't this (direct) blackmail? Or sheer hypocrisy, for the EU officially stands for its neighbors' sovereignty, yet dictates what they must do to reap benefits? In any case, the EU feels it has a chance to strike a good deal here, with pressure increasing exponentially: the Council of Europe has visited Belarus recently, followed last week by Javier Solana, the Secretary-General of the EU, only to pave way for Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commission Commissioner, to visit in the next few weeks.
Normally this wouldn't be such a problem for Mr. Lukashenka, but pundits speculate that Lukashenka promised Russia's President, Dmitriy Medvedev, to recognize the two separatist enclaves in exchange for a recent multi-billion dollar loan from its big eastern neighbor.

For now, one thing is for certain: henceforth, the balancing act for Belarus will only become tougher.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Tasty Snack

If anyone has ever wondered what is a good, healthy snack in between meals to suppress hunger, here is a tasty suggestion: Costco's Kirkland Signature Fruit Nut Medley. The 8+ lbs. bag consists of a cornucopia of, as quoted on the package, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, apples, kiwi, mangoes, papaya, pineapple, strawberries, bananas, cherries, and raisins. At under $15 (i.e., less than $2 per pound, or, in other words, about a quarter per serving), it's a very good deal.

True, the kiwi, papaya and strawberries are dehydrated, the cherries - dry, and the plethora of nuts may cause allergies for some. However, this is still delicious, and quite addictive.

Just forget the part I mentioned about suppressing hunger. Overindulging in this, as in almost anything, is sure to add to one's waistline... and with that will eventually come a larger appetite.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Protectionism and ... Deglobalization?

So all of the current rhethoric about protectionism--and recent data about the actual fall in everything from global economic growth to world trade to unemployment--has led to a new fearmongering term by economists: deglobalization.

Reading the latest issue of The Economist (both online and in print), I want to quote the following:

"Globalisation - A backwards march

Feb 20th 2009, from

The integration of the world economy is in retreat

THE economic meltdown has popularised a new term: deglobalisation. The process of the global integration of goods, capital and jobs is in trouble. The IMF predicts global growth of 0.5% this year, the worst in 60 years. World trade has plunged. Foreign direct investment, a common route to transfer skills and technology from rich to poor countries, fell by 21% in 2008 to $1.4 trillion and will contract by another 12-15% this year. Unemployment is expected to rise by 30m from 2007 levels by the end of this year. A poll taken in the last two months of 2008 by Edelman for the World Economic Forum found that 62% of repondents in 20 countries said they trusted companies less, with a majority keen on more state regulation."

Deplorable, indeed, but are things really this bad? And will this last? Surely, things are this chaotic at present, but I expect the trend to reverse quite rapidly once the toxic assets will be isolated and international banking will restart in earnest. Until then, yes, it'll be this bad, if not worse.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wealth Mismanagement

The Economist published an article about UBS, my former employer, under this title in April 2008. Ruefully, things at UBS have hardly improved since then.

The bank lost a record amount of money in the fourth quarter of 2008, it was revealed a week ago. So much, in fact, that once the Swiss government bailed it out with extra funds, it caused the Swiss budget to register a deficit.

But that isn't the end of the grim news, alas.

It was revealed today that UBS has agreed to pay $780 million (in fines, interest, penalties, and restitution, according to the Associated Press) to the U.S. government in a plea bargain of sorts, as it seeks to quell allegations that it conspired to defraud the IRS of taxes owed by numerous bigwig clients. Purportedly, UBS has agreed to turn over its U.S. customer account information to the federal government immediately, which may go to the nexus of the secretive accounts some of these people hold in Switzerland, one of the world's most notorious offshore tax (evasion) havens.

What a fall from grace from just several years back, when UBS was revered as being the world's most prudent wealth management brand.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Belated Justice?

Some 30 years after one of Asia's worst genocides, its perpetrators may finally be brought to justice.
Today, Kaing Guek Eav (more commonly known as Duch), now a religious Christian, will appeared before Cambodia's genocide tribunal in its first hearing over the infamous (and rueful) Khmer Rouge regime's role in the massacre. Duch is charged with crimes against humanity, including torture, murder, and rape.
Some 1.7 million Cambodians, or roughly one-third of the population, died during the regime's reign of terror, which prosecuted, among others, intellectuals or those deemed to have been "corrupted" by the erstwhile regime.
I had the chance to visit Duch's school-turned-prison, the S-21, which he was in charge of in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's laid-back capital (see attached pictures). I was surprised to read this morning that he has voiced regret for what he did and is now seeking forgiveness, unlike the other accomplices charged by the UN-assisted tribunal. However, he has apparently not made any formal confession, merely admitting that crimes did take place under his watch at S-21.
According to the Associated Press, the trial is to begin in late March, with 33 witnesses testifying over 40 days, with the defense seeking 13 witnesses of 4.5 days.
For years, I've been following this case in publications such as The Financial Times, reading about the incessant bickering between Cambodia and the UN over funding and pay, with former spooks, who to some degree still run amok and pull a fair amount of strings in the Buddhist kingdom, clearly influencing many decisions. It is amazing that this tribunal was proposed 13 years ago--and the court inaugurated 3 years ago--but only now has it got under way.
Alas, many other perpetrators with blood on their hands are still free or at large--and, most rueful of all, they may not even be brought to trial. This, regrettably, will only weaken the authority of the court, no matter what Duch's ultimate fate may be.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Lost Decade Revisited?

If you thought the recession in the U.S. or Europe is bad, then Japan's dire economic state makes the United States' economy look healthy and robust in comparison.

The Economist reports that figures due to be released in a few hours in Japan are expected to show that the economy has shrunk by 10% year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2008. Such a contraction can only be compared to those of Iceland and Latvia, putting Japan in the infamous group of countries whose governments have already been ousted from power (the former) or are in the process of becoming precisely such a casualty (the latter).

Having just quite recently emerged from "The Lost Decade," when the economy contracted steeply after its asset bubble burst only to fall into a protracted bout of deflation, Japan's growth has now been stifled by the global economic crisis.

Unfortunately for Japan, this may prove to be its hardest battle yet. For one, the country’s banking system is modern and developed, so it would be hard (i.e. impossible) for Japan to decouple from such a worldwide financial debacle. Even harder, alas, for a country that is a global financial hub, the world's second biggest economy, and one of the world's largest exporters. The latter problem has been exacerbated as the yen has appreciated roughly 25% against the U.S. dollar, 40% against the euro, and some 90% against the British pound in the last six months, thus making Japan’s exports more expensive for its main cash-deprived consumers.

Such an export-oriented economy is bound to suffer greatly, especially when global demand for its products, many of them high-quality cars, electronics, and sundry gadgets, plunges.

And it seems that, as a result, Japan’s Prime Minister, Taro Aso, is likely to follow his (former) Icelandic counterpart in resigning quite soon, possibly in the next few weeks, thus becoming the next PM to resign as a result of the global financial disaster.
Expect many more to follow him.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

There is Some Hope for America's Rail System After All!

I was just reading a Yahoo! News article on the U.S. fiscal stimulus and spending package when I stumbled across something that genuinely surprised me in the most pleasant of ways:

"In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines, quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday. Reid's office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money."

If it passes, perhaps this will be one of the better parts of a bill that has been lambasted by many Republicans and a surprising number of Democrats alike, although chiefly in private by the latter.

Read one of my earlier blog posts--posted on the previous page on January 30--on the wealth of benefits such rail development would have. It is truly surprising that the bigwigs on Capitol Hill have finally realized this; I will be even more surprised, however, if such a big spending increase actually passes, despite all the rhetoric.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Banal Sign of Economic Hardship...

Three weeks ago I went to my local library and found its electronic book catalog. After searching for a "Start Your Own EBay Business" book, I wrote down four books' call numbers and went to find them.

Much to my surprise, three out of the four books have already been checked out.

And what was left was not a good book, at least that's what I gleaned after skimming its pages.

Yes, signs of mass unemployment and a protracted economic crisis.

And I don't expect to see these books back on the shelf anytime soon.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

President Obama's Pitfalls

Remember the times before Barack Obama’s inauguration when pundits and typical everyday folks alike were all wondering—and vociferously debating—how long the 44th U.S. President’s honeymoon would last? Yesterday, it seems, everyone found out the answer.

Opinion polls have shown Mr. Obama’s approval rating, while still high, has fallen from 66% to 61% on February 4—a day after two more resignations were announced from Mr. Obama’s cabinet: first by Tom Daschle, later by Nancy Killefer. The former couldn’t have hurt Mr. Obama more, as Mr. Daschle, the Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, was an ostensibly indispensible part of the President’s key staff. The departure of Ms. Killefer, while considered for a lower-tier role as a “spring cleaner” of sorts (designated with overseeing government programs for waste and other minutiae), only added to the consternation felt at the White House on Tuesday. The reason for both resignations is tax evasion, although whether such actions were accidental or intentional is still a moot point. All this is in addition to the resignation of Bill Richardson before Mr. Obama’s inauguration a fortnight ago, sparked by an ongoing investigation dating back to purported behavior during his days as former governor of New Mexico.

Even more unfortunate is that these resignations could not have come at a worse time, when Congress is mulling a nearly $1 trillion stimulus package while the economy is deteriorating by the day. Such distractions—while Democrats are embarrassed just as the Republicans are furtively celebrating—do not augur well for constructive debates, to be sure. Neither does the new joke that is making rounds around Capitol Hill: “Why are Democrats always for raising taxes? Because they don’t pay any!”

But most ominous of all, perhaps, is that Mr. Obama’s rating is now just about the same as George W. Bush’s was at the same stage of his first term. He must surely be hoping for a quick reversal of this trajectory—and wishing that the blip made while initially uttering the presidential oath does not portend precisely such rueful stumbles ahead.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Latent Cold War

Well, how quaint.

Days after meeting Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev, it became official that Kyrgyzstan's lame duck President Kurmanbek Bakiev has decided to close the U.S. Air Base near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. According to the Los Angeles Times, Russia promised Kyrgyzstan a package consisting of a $150 million aid grant, a $2 billion loan on highly favorable terms, as well as cancellation of the Central Asian state's $180 million debt. Oh, and on top of that is assistance in building a hydroelectric power plant, which will partly help Kyrgyzstan wean off its reliance on neighboring Uzbekistan for energy.

So, after the recent flurry of rumors swirling around the imminent closure of the U.S. Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, it appears that closure is the name of the game after all. This is a key development in international affairs, for Moscow's, er, Bishkek’s successful shutting down of the U.S. base in this strategic Central Asian country--indeed, one very close to Afghanistan--means that the U.S. will lose its only base in all of Central Asia.

Russia already has a base in Kyrgyzstan. It is located in Kant—not too far from the site of the U.S. Manas base. In six months, Russia's base will be the only one left in this Central Asian state.

The U.S. was paying Kyrgyzstan millions of dollars per annum for using the base, but apparently Russia's terms were too sweet to pass up.

With the next presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan due sometime next year, a lot can change until then. But don't expect Moscow's support to result in a significant improvement in the standard of living in one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

Hitherto, Kyrgyzstan was considered a relative paragon of freedom, though relative is the key word here: Central Asia has authoritarian regimes in all of its former Soviet republics. By those standards, Kyrgyzstan was, as the region's best political reformer, an exemplar, but in recent year's President Bakiev has reversed many of those gains. Indeed, since coming to power in the spring of 2005 during the country's so-called Tulip Revolution, locals seem to think that things are now getting worse, not better, and not only as it concerns freedom of speech, but first and foremost in the economy.

Thus, it isn't so surprising that Mr. Bakiev is cuddling up to Moscow. Perhaps he is thinking that if it isn't possible to secure a clear majority in free and fair elections, boasted by Moscow's dollops of aid in the interim, than Moscow will at least be duly willing to recognize the elections as democratic regardless of what the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) election watchdog group says. On that note he is certainly correct.

However, winning such an election will not make him any more popular among his own people, who may well prove again that the ultimate result of elections rests with them, irrespective of the likely machinations by the government elite.

Alas, as is all too common in post-Soviet politics, authorities seem too nearsighted to recognize this threat until it is too late.

Déjà vu

I finally had a chance to watch “Milk,” a highly acclaimed movie that has generally been given an “A” rating by pundits. It is a touching story of California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, and the gay rights movement in San Francisco’s infamous Castro district, the state of California, and the greater U.S. in the 1970s. Though the movie is a bit long, I didn’t look at my watch once—it was that good. Very interesting, touching, and, best of all, it’s a true story. Highly recommended.

Interestingly enough, while Harvey Milk was California’s first openly gay official, Iceland has been making news again in a similar sort of way. Indeed, Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir (pictured right), having replaced the outgoing Geir Haarde, last week became the world’s first openly homosexual head of state.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

China's Economic Malaise

Wow, what a drastic turn of events.

Just last summer, prominent economists were saying that it is quite plausible that China's economy would decouple from that of the U.S. and Europe, thereby not simply surviving the global financial crisis, but walking away unscathed.

What a different six months make.

In fact, what a difference a day makes.

Reading the comments of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (caricatured) in a special Financial Times interview yesterday, he emphasized economic growth, noting that some 12 million Chinese have returned back to their rustic life, having recently been made redundant.

Well, today's issue of the Financial Times notes that the newest figures from Beijing, released yesterday, portend a much gloomier picture: some 20 million have lost their jobs, and more jobs are likely to be shed in future months.

Quite understandably, Beijing is wary of public dissatisfaction, especially from its millions of restive, young graduates who may have problems finding jobs this year. China's giant stimulus package will try to counter their unhappiness, but will it be enough?

Time will tell, but it doesn't seem that time is on China's side, at least not at the moment. By having to achieve annual growth of at least 8 percent this year so that enough jobs are kept or created for its expanding population, China faces a tough road ahead.

FREE Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast until 2 p.m. TODAY!

That's right, for those of you who haven't heard, Denny's is giving away its famous Grand Slam Breakfast for free. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, this offer is only valid today (Tuesday, February 3), and from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. at that. Still, what a delicious bargain! Hurry up, only two hours left!...

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Lowdown of Chicago's 2016 Olympic Games Bid

In case you haven't heard yet, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will name the host city for the 2016 summer Olympics in just 242 days (October 2). When the final selection is made in Copenhagen, Denmark, four cities will be vying for the right to host the world's biggest sports event: Madrid, Spain; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Tokyo, Japan; and, of course, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

If Chicago is selected—which just so happens to be the city where this blogger hails from--these will be the first summer games held on U.S. soil since the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. As of June 4, 2008, Chicago has been named an official finalist in the running, with the Games slated to take place from July 22 to August 7, followed by the Paralympics from August 12 to the 28th.

It's still too early to predict the outcome, with some reporting that Chicago is somewhere in the middle of the pile, while others say the Games are Chicago's to lose. The mere fact that the 2012 summer Games are in London doesn't favor Madrid, since the IOC rarely chooses successive summer or winter games to be held on the same continent. Tokyo has hosted the 1964 summer Games, whereas neither Chicago nor Rio de Janeiro have hosted the Games at all (South America, actually, has never hosted any Olympic event, period). Other factors to be examined in choosing the host city will include proposed and current transportation schemes, infrastructure development (which, perhaps, explains why local authorities are so keen to expand the interminably congested O'Hare International Airport), putative funding, and others. Using these yardsticks, Chicago has a decent, if not great, chance at being selected, for it is a transport and rail hub of the U.S., one of America's richest cities, and a poster boy in recent months thanks to President Obama being a hometown native.

Indeed, history has shown that there is a high correlation between increased funding and respective presidents' hometowns during their terms, so it may be quite likely that Mr. Obama will be more apt to dole out an extra several million greenbacks to support the bid of his former “Windy City.”

Likewise, the fact that Mr. Obama's hails from Chicago is unlikely to hurt the city's bid in any way. Quite to the contrary, it is only likely to help it. And, if he gets to stay on for a second term—which, in any case, is too early to contemplate yet for all except, perhaps, Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod—Chicago's potential selection could prove to be one of 2009’s main highlights of his presidency, much like ex-Russian President Vladimir Putin's successful Sochi 2014 bid added fire to his already vast approval rating.