Thursday, July 31, 2008

AT&T Teases iPhone Owners With Free Wi-Fi

AT&T Teases iPhone Owners With Free Wi-Fi -- Again
By Brian X. Chen July 18, 2008
Categories: Internet, iPhone, Our Telco Overlords

Moments after AT&T posted a message on its site saying it would provide free Wi-Fi services to iPhone users, the company took it back. And AT&T spokespeople are keeping their lips sealed as to who or what caused the "error" -- or whether free AT&T Wi-Fi is ever going to become a reality.

At approximately 9 a.m. PDT, AT&T removed the message from its site, which read, "AT&T knows Wi-Fi is hot, and free Wi-Fi even hotter, which is why we are proud to offer iPhone customers free access to the nation's largest Wi-Fi hotspot network with more than 17,000 hotspots."

"It was posted in error and was removed shortly thereafter, so it should not have been up," said Seth Bloom, an AT&T spokesperson, in a phone interview. "We know how important Wi-Fi is and we intend to make it available to as many people as we can, but nothing can be announced today."

Another AT&T representative said almost the same thing, verbatim. Clearly they were both reading from the same script.

This isn't the first time AT&T has teased iPhone users, either. In late April, iPhone users began receiving free AT&T Wi-Fi without any official announcement. Days later, that free access was no more.

Unlike in May, Friday's snafu is a bit more embarrassing for AT&T since an announcement -- official or not -- appeared in writing. It's practically irresponsible (not to mention condescending) for the company to refuse to comment on any prospects of free Wi-Fi: Why else would that message ever have been written? If it were "pushed live erroneously," doesn't that imply it'll be pushed live eventually? And if so, why don't they just tell us that?

Star Wars: Episode 3.5?,8599,1823817,00.html

Thursday, Jul. 17, 2008
Star Wars: Episode 3.5?

Consider it Star Wars III and a Half — complete with a pivotal plot twist.

When LucasArts releases Star Wars: The Force Unleashed on Sept. 16, the video game will serve as George Lucas' official median between 2005's Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith and 1977's Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. In the game, players become Darth Vader's secret apprentice and use The Force to hunt the remaining Jedi.

Force Unleashed allows gamers use supercharged Force powers to bust through objects, wield a lightsaber, blast lighting bolts and fling around foes. The game will also change the way fans view Episode IV through Episode VI — Return of the Jedi, LucasArts project lead Haden Blackman told The Associated Press at the E3 Business and Media Summit.

"There's a couple of big twists and turns in the story," said Blackman. "One revelation in particular really impacts the rest of the saga as a whole. It goes way beyond filling in gaps. We try to make a bridge on every level. The story has a real implications on Episode IV. In some ways, without the apprentice, Episode IV couldn't happen."

Versions of The Force Unleashed will be available on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS and PlayStation 2. Blackman and his team worked with Lucas to craft the original saga, which mixes both pre-established elements from the Star Wars universe as well as new characters, locales and details from game developers.

"We pitched a number of different story ideas and concepts to him," said Blackman. "With him, we picked and chose the strongest elements. As we worked on The Force Unleashed, he encouraged us to create new characters as well use existing characters. He told us, 'If you're going to use Vader, that's fine, but here's how you can use him.'"

In the first level, players will plow through the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk as Darth Vader. Subsequent levels find players serving as Vader's apprentice and traveling to such locales as a TIE Fighter construction facility, the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, the overgrown planet of Felucia and back to an Empire ravaged Kashyyyk.

"Story-wise, we left some openings for a sequel," said Blackman. "The concept of 'The Force Unleashed' could be taken in any direction. We could potentially do a Force Unleashed game set in a different Star Wars time period with a new storyline. We were definitely cognizant to leave some doors open at the end."

Lucas will premiere the new computer-animated film Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which takes place between Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones and Episode III, on Aug. 10. The film will be pegged to a new weekly animated TV series as well as new Clone Wars video games for both the Nintendo DS and the Wii.

Nintendo seizes lead in US console war

Nintendo seizes lead in US console war
by Tracy Erickson 07/17/2008

Our new leader.

Speaking to GamePro today Nintendo proclaimed, "After just 20 months, Wii is the new console leader in the US with nearly 10.9 million units."

NPD sales data backs up the claim. Wii moved 666,700 units in the month of June, which is enough to push it over Xbox 360 as the dominant platform in North America.

Despite a year head start for Xbox 360 and two generations of PlayStation consoles leading the market, Nintendo has rocketed back to the top with Wii.

Even with the help of blockbuster exclusive Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots which sold nearly a million copies last month, PlayStation 3 still took a second seat to Wii with a respectable 405,500 consoles sold.

That figure is nearly double the number of Xbox 360s sold in June - 219,800. Adding salt to Microsoft's wounds is the fact that it almost was beaten by PlayStation 2 with an impressive showing of 188,800 units.

Nintendo's new position in the video game market comes hot off the heels of E3 in Los Angeles this week. The annual trade show saw a slew of new game announcements from the company, as well as competitors Sony and Microsoft.

Time Warner AOL discussions

Yahoo and Microsoft step up Time Warner AOL discussions
July 16, 2008

Yahoo and Microsoft have both accelerated their respective deal-making talks with Time Warner's AOL, as a proxy fight looms less than three weeks away between Yahoo and investor activist Carl Icahn, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

"The ongoing talks between all the companies have recently picked up," said the source.

That may come as no surprise, given that Yahoo over the weekend rejected a sweetened Microsoft offer to buy just its search assets and the board of directors for the Internet pioneer will be up for grabs when Yahoo and Icahn face off at the August 1 annual shareholders meeting.

Specifics about the types of deals that are currently underway in these two separate discussions and the likelihood of an outcome are not clear.

But previously, talks between Yahoo and AOL reportedly involved discussions of Yahoo acquiring AOL and, then, Time Warner taking an investment in Yahoo.

And as noted in the Silicon Alley Insider last month, a Microsoft buyout of AOL could come sooner than later. In fact, Silicon Alley Insider posted this nugget Tuesday that a team from AOL was in Seattle to talk about a potential deal with the software giant.

And a report in Reuters Tuesday was the first to note talks had "heated up" among the three parties.

Apple must win its case against Psystar -- or else

July 16, 2008
Apple must win its case against Psystar -- or else
Posted by Don Reisinger

In a move that everyone was waiting for, Apple has finally sued Psystar for violating its copyright and has asked for the company's profits and a recall of all orders.

"As alleged more fully below, by misappropriating Apple's proprietary software and intellectual property for its own use, Psystar's actions harm consumers by selling to them a poor product that is advertised and promoted in a manner that falsely and unfairly implies an affiliation with Apple," Apple's suit claims. "Psystar's actions also have caused, and are causing, harm to Apple and constitute a misuse of Apple's intellectual property."

Everyone knew Apple would eventually make a move against Psystar, but I'm not too sure anyone thought the suit would feature the kind of saber rattling it does. That said, it's the smart move and one that Apple must make if it wants to get away from anything of the sort happening again.

But if it doesn't use its head and try to force Psystar to its demise, Apple will open a can of worms that it may not be able to handle so easily.

Psystar may be the only company that's willing to sell its own brand of computers with Mac OS X installed right now, but rest assured that it's not the only company that's thinking about it. In fact, I would venture to say that the vast majority of small computer companies are looking to jump on that bandwagon at any second and have waited this long because of their desire to see what happens to Psystar.

Here's how I see it going down:

If Apple gets everything it asks for and totally ruins Psystar, it will never need to worry about an unknown firm trying to sell Mac OS X again. The legal battle will be enough to send small companies packing and Apple will make Psystar just another example of what can happen to a small organization when it tries to stand up to a monster.

But if it doesn't get everything it asks for and it's forced to concede some points and the court orders Psystar to pay Apple some sort of licensing fee, Apple will have stepped on a bee's nest.

In one fell swoop, other companies will realize that they will be able to get away with selling Mac OS X on their own brand of computers and use the precedent of the Psystar case to their advantage if and when they face legal action from Apple.

In the process, these companies will crop up and start selling Mac OS X-based computers and instead of trying to deal with one company, Apple will be forced to play games with dozens.

But the story doesn't quite end there. Does Apple really know why companies actually want to sell Mac OS X? Inevitably, the company's lawyers will claim that it's due to the value of Mac OS X and its usefulness. But in reality, it has nothing to do with Mac OS X and everything to do with Apple.

Apple's policy of locking Mac OS X down to its own brand of computers has helped it sell Macs, but it hasn't won it any awards in the SME space. By only offering Mac OS X on its own computers, it's effectively blocking any and all companies out of the profit-making space and forcing them to try and sell Windows PCs.

On top of that, Apple is an extremely popular company right now that commands a lot of attention from both tech and mainstream media. Because of that success, companies like Psystar are taking notice and are trying desperately to jump on that bandwagon before it fizzles out.

So in an attempt to become a major player in a PC market that's dominated by a handful of huge companies where there simply isn't any room for small PC manufacturers, companies like Psystar are trying to find ways to capitalize on Apple's success and differentiate themselves as much as possible. And although it may not be the smartest move legally, Psystar is just the first of many that want to do that by selling Mac OS X-based machines.

Years ago, breaking into the PC business and solidifying your company in it wasn't nearly as difficult as it is today. In fact, it's practically impossible. But by selling Mac OS X-based machines, the chances of your company making some inroads are substantially higher.

And as more companies realize that, it becomes more imperative for Apple to play hardball with Psystar and try to take the company for all it's worth. If it doesn't and Psystar gets away with just a slap on the wrist, look for it to be the first of many companies that are looking to offer Mac OS X machines and Apple will be faced to deal with many more than one.

Roku Netflix Player upgrade in the works

Roku Netflix Player upgrade in the works
Christopher Null: The Working Guy
Wed Jul 9, 2008

Has the battle to create a dream product to link online digital media to the TV quietly been won? Despite competition from just about everyone—Vudu, Apple, TiVo, Xbox, and more—humble Roku, which released its Netflix Player set-top box barely over a month ago (making it a distant latecomer to the game), sold out of its first shipment in three weeks. Demand is so strong that the company is air-freighting new units to the U.S. in order to keep up.

Almost thrown off as an aside in a Forbes story about Netflix's online ambitions, Roku VP Tim Twerdahl mentions that later this year the $99 box will be upgraded to stream content from other providers aside from Netflix. That would make it the first major set-top box to hook into multiple services and could turn what is already a very good product into a category killer.

Even without the extra features, the Roku box is already a hit, and I think it's because it's embraced the idea of simplicity. There's nothing complicated or even sophisticated about the Netflix Player. There's no display on the box, and the remote control is reminiscent of the original Zenith "clicker." Next to famously "simple" products like TiVo and the Apple TV, the Roku player makes them look like baffling mainframe computers in comparison. Anyone who can plug in their television should have no problem setting up the device.

Naturally, the price is another huge boon for the product. At $99, it's cheaper than dinner and a movie. Since the service is free if you already have a Netflix account, what possible objections could anyone have to hooking one up?

Add in more streaming options and the Roku gets even better. Roku teases us by not mentioning exactly what services it will link to, though; they are described only as "other 'big name' providers." My only concern is that the box needs to retain its simple nature. If I have to input a credit card number using a remote with no number buttons on it, I'll unplug it in disgust.

Meanwhile, Netflix is wasting time with other set-top box providers (including Microsoft's Xbox), all of which is just a distraction that keeps it from adding to its 10,000-movie library available for streaming. Does anyone really watch movies on the Xbox 360 as it is? The fan is so loud it drowns out the dialogue.

Memo to Netflix: Stick with the Roku. Expand the library. Dominate the market.

Internet Users Stop Comcast

Timothy Karr
Internet Users Stop Comcast, Net Neutrality Win on the Horizon
July 11, 2008

Read More: Cable, Comcast, Fcc, Internet, Kevin Martin, Net Neutrality, SavetheInternet.Com, Media News

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin is taking action against Comcast for illegally violating Net Neutrality, after a coalition of Net users and activists caught the cable giant blocking open access to the Internet.

Martin told the Associated Press last night that Comcast had "arbitrarily" blocked Internet access and failed to disclose to consumers what it was doing. "We found that Comcast's actions in this instance violated our principles."

Topolski Ignites the Fire

The move is the agency's response to a complaint filed by Free Press and members of, which called for severe action against Comcast for jamming people using popular "file-sharing" applications. But the story goes back further than that.

Organized People Beat Organized Money

Martin's action -- to be voted on by the full FCC in three weeks - would be a major milestone for the growing open Internet movement, marking another defeat of entrenched corporate interests in Washington and a stunning victory for ordinary people who want to control their Internet experience.

If adopted by the FCC, Martin's order could set an historic precedent for protecting the future of the open Internet. Against every ounce of conventional wisdom in Washington, everyday citizens and consumer advocates have taken on a major corporation and won a major victory.

The decision follows nearly a year of organizing and action by a growing alliance of bloggers, Internet innovators, consumer groups, organizations from across the political spectrum, and Net activists from all walks of life.

In that time, tens of thousands of people wrote the FCC in support of Net Neutrality after Free Press filed its complaint against Comcast and asked the agency to levy the largest fine in its history.

Comcast's "Shame"

Hundreds of others packed public hearings to speak out against would-be gatekeepers (even after Comcast notoriously attempted to keep them out by hiring drowsy seat warmers in Boston).

The Power of One

But it all started with one person. When barbershop quartet enthusiast Robb Topolski found Comcast was preventing him from sharing legal music files with other fans, he took to his computer and launched a one-man investigation.

Topolski uncovered conclusive evidence that Comcast was secretly blocking his uploads. His concerns echoed those of hundreds of other Comcast users, who had taken to the blogs and chat rooms to express their dismay.

He posted his findings on a single tech blog. This had a cascading effect, and soon dozens of others were writing about his findings. The Associated Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation conducted their own investigations with similar results. The evidence was indisputable: Comcast was blocking the Internet.

The wheels of government started churning. This time for the better.

The Fight Continues

Martin's move is a major victory. But this fight is far from over. His order has yet to pass, though it seems likely. The cable companies -- and the phone companies, too, even though they're trying to distance themselves from Comcast -- will be back with their money, lawyers and phony grassroots groups to try to take control of the Internet and establish themselves as gatekeepers.
Companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby Washington to gut Net Neutrality and hand over control of the Internet to them. But they so far have failed to overcome widespread and organized public opposition.

Today we can celebrate a huge victory for real people, but we need to continue this fight to send a clear signal to the next Congress and White House that standing with regular people for a free and open Internet is a winning proposition.

The “Making” of a Politician

The “Making” of a Politician
By LisaB
July 13, 2008
Alice Palmer, Barack Obama, Chicago politics, David Axelrod, Democratic party

Got your attention? While the cover of this issue of the New Yorker will likely be the topic of countless blogs and tv spots tomorrow, don’t miss the article.

It is a fascinating piece on Obama’s early years in Illinois politics. Seems like some of his early supporters have buyer’s remorse. Many people have questioned how Obama could rise so quickly in Chicago politics. This article attempts to trace his rise and finds some interesting parallels to this year’s presidential race.

In a particularly interesting bit, the article tells how Obama looked to redraw the district he represented in Illinois after losing the congressional race to Bobby Rush.

. . . Obama began working on his “ideal map.” Corrigan remembers two things about the district that he and Obama drew. First, it retained Obama’s Hyde Park base—he had managed to beat Rush in Hyde Park—then swooped upward along the lakefront and toward downtown. By the end of the final redistricting process, his new district bore little resemblance to his old one. Rather than jutting far to the west, like a long thin dagger, into a swath of poor black neighborhoods of bungalow homes, Obama’s map now shot north, encompassing about half of the Loop, whose southern portion was beginning to be transformed by developers like Tony Rezko, and stretched far up Michigan Avenue and into the Gold Coast, covering much of the city’s economic heart, its main retail thoroughfares, and its finest museums, parks, skyscrapers, and lakefront apartment buildings. African-Americans still were a majority, and the map contained some of the poorest sections of Chicago, but Obama’s new district was wealthier, whiter, more Jewish, less blue-collar, and better educated. It also included one of the highest concentrations of Republicans in Chicago.

“It was a radical change,” Corrigan said. The new district was a natural fit for the candidate that Obama was in the process of becoming. “He saw that when we were doing fund-raisers in the Rush campaign his appeal to, quite frankly, young white professionals was dramatic.”

While Obama’s current race for president portrays him as a black man running against white privilege and against long odds, Obama’s base has always been mainly upper-class whites. And he has always known this.

Also interesting is Obama’s current use of surrogates and un-official campaign advisors. As some of these people are now under the bus, the story has always been that they spoke out of turn or didn’t represent Obama’s real position or that Obama no longer “knew” these people. In that sense, Obama is seen as removed from some of the lower aspects of politicking. But in this article, the author asserts:

Obama also became more of a strategist, someone increasingly comfortable discussing the finer points of polls, message, and fund-raising. According to his friends, Obama does not delegate campaign planning.

I find this curious as well, because one of the hallmarks of the Obama campaign to date is its incoherence. Obama says one thing and his handlers say “what he meant was. . . ” Everyone contradicts everyone else, with the end point being no one knows where Obama really stands on much of anything. Given all of Obama’s “present” votes and non-appearance at votes, it feels as if the “fog of information” is really a campaign tactic. If you can’t be pinned down, you can’t be held accountable and you get to claim outcomes after the fact. If you don’t actually vote on something, you can easily claim to have been for or against it all along, with no penalty for the slight of hand.

Another interesting point not covered in the MSM is Obama’s history with the troubled administration of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Although Tony Rezko links the two men, Obama has kept his distance. Recently though, Rahm Emanuel noted that Obama and he worked for Blagojevich’s campaign.

That year, he gained his first high-level experience in a statewide campaign when he advised the victorious gubernatorial candidate Rod Blagojevich, another politician with a funny name and a message of reform. Rahm Emanuel, a congressman from Chicago and a friend of Obama’s, told me that he, Obama, David Wilhelm, who was Blagojevich’s campaign co-chair, and another Blagojevich aide were the top strategists of Blagojevich’s victory. He and Obama “participated in a small group that met weekly when Rod was running for governor,” Emanuel said. “We basically laid out the general election, Barack and I and these two.” A spokesman for Blagojevich confirmed Emanuel’s account, although David Wilhelm, who now works for Obama, said that Emanuel had overstated Obama’s role. “There was an advisory council that was inclusive of Rahm and Barack but not limited to them,” Wilhelm said, and he disputed the notion that Obama was “an architect or one of the principal strategists.”

It’s important to note that the Obama campaign has since claimed Emanual’s memory on this issue is faulty. Must be a problem there.

As the presidential race continues, the Obama campaign continues to tout his achievements in the state senate as examples of his ability to govern and help his constituents. As many people know by now, this record is spotty. The New Yorker’s take on this period is clear.

In the State Senate, Jones [an important politician in Illinois] did something even more important for Obama. He pushed him forward as the key sponsor of some of the Party’s most important legislation, even though the move did not sit well with some colleagues who had plugged away in the minority on bills that Obama now championed as part of the majority. “Because he had been in the minority, Barack didn’t have a legislative record to run on, and there was a buildup of all these great ideas that the Republicans kept in the rules committee when they were in the majority,” Burns said. “Jones basically gave Obama the space to do what Obama wanted to do. Emil made it clear to people that it would be good for them.” Burns, who at that point was working for Jones, was assigned to keep an eye on Obama’s floor votes, which, because he was a Senate candidate, would be under closer scrutiny. The Obama-Jones alliance worked. In one year, 2003, Obama passed much of the legislation, including bills on racial profiling, death-penalty reform, and expanded health insurance for children, that he highlighted in his Senate campaign.

Interesting stuff indeed. Still, the core of Obama as a politician is muddy on the national scene. His supporters claim he is a person not “of the system” who practices “transformational politics.” Here at NoQuarter, we’ve been saying this is not the case. The New Yorker says the same thing.

Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. When he was a community organizer, he channelled his work through Chicago’s churches, because they were the main bases of power on the South Side. He was an agnostic when he started, and the work led him to become a practicing Christian. At Harvard, he won the presidency of the Law Review by appealing to the conservatives on the selection panel. In Springfield, rather than challenge the Old Guard Democratic leaders, Obama built a mutually beneficial relationship with them. “You have the power to make a United States senator,” he told Emil Jones in 2003. In his downtime, he played poker with lobbyists and Republican lawmakers. In Washington, he has been a cautious senator and, when he arrived, made a point of not defining himself as an opponent of the Iraq war.

In addition to this, the New Yorker notes that Obama has alienated past supporters by his tendency to switch positions. Sound familiar?

Obama’s establishment inclinations have alienated some old friends. During the 2004 Senate primary, Obama sometimes reminded voters of his anti-machine credentials, but at the same time he shrewdly wrote to Mayor Daley’s brother, William, who had backed one of Obama’s primary opponents, asking for his support if he won the primary. As he outgrew the provincial politics of Hyde Park, he became closer to the Mayor, and this accommodation, as well as his unwillingness to condemn the corruption scandals ensnaring Daley and Blagojevich, both of whom he supported for reĆ«lection, have some of his original supporters feeling alienated and angry.

Deja vu, much?

The title of this article is “Making It.” OK. But I think this story is more like the MTV show “Made” where young people are given a couple of weeks to learn something hard to do in order to “become” something they dream of, like the video gamer who was “made” into a martial artist. While you can’t help admire the pluck and effort of these young people, you still know that a video gamer doesn’t become Jackie Chan in a few weeks of hard work. It’s artificial. Whatever skills the gamer gets won’t be backed up by years of practice or depth of knowledge.

And while Barack Obama has, arguably, put in a few years of work in politics, his rise and experience suggest to me someone who has been “made.” There’s just no “there” there.

This article is definitely worth the read. In addition to the few bits I’ve highlighted are insights about Obama’s choice of church and Michelle Obama’s political connections.

Restaurants That Lack Calorie Counts Face Fines

July 19, 2008
Restaurants That Lack Calorie Counts Now Face Fines

Mark Loersch, who teaches nutrition to high school students, noticed something in a McDonald’s restaurant on West 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan that he had not seen back home in Onalaska, Wis.: calorie counts posted next to the prices. A Big Mac has 540 calories, the sign said.

“It’s a good idea,” Mr. Loersch said, adding that knowing how many calories are in each item on the menu might make customers choose lighter ones. “A Big Mac is 300 calories less than an Angus mushroom and Swiss burger.” (Well, almost. The difference is actually 280 calories.)

The signs that caught Mr. Loersch’s eye on Friday are now required at many chain restaurants in New York City, and as of Saturday, city health inspectors can begin issuing citations that carry fines to restaurants that do not have calorie information posted with their prices.

Since May, inspectors have had the authority to cite restaurants that did not conform to the city’s calorie-posting rules. As of July 12, 277 restaurants had been cited.

But the health department had said there would be a “no fine” period at first, and that period was extended after the New York State Restaurant Association challenged the rules in federal court. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit eventually denied the restaurant association’s request to extend the no fine period beyond midnight Friday. The fines will range from $200 to $2,000.

On Friday, a check of half a dozen chain restaurants in Midtown showed that all had calorie counts posted. That was a change from early May, when the McDonald’s at 1560 Broadway, at West 46th Street, was one of the first restaurants cited for not having calorie figures posted.

Another restaurant cited on the first day calorie violations were issued, the Burger King at 561 Seventh Avenue, at West 40th Street, also had calorie figures on the signs above the counter.

“Scary, as I stand here holding, like, 3,200 calories,” said Nick Perna, a marketing specialist who had just bought a Whopper with cheese, French fries and a soft drink.

A colleague, Derek Cummings, took a closer look at the sign and said the total was only 1,720 calories. According to the sign, that was the maximum for a Whopper meal. The minimum was 1,260. The range covered extras a customer could order, like extra fries and extra cheese.

“I went sans cheese,” Mr. Cummings said, holding his own Whopper, “so I saved something.”

The calorie counts are part of a health department campaign that affects more than 2,000 restaurants, or about 10 percent of all restaurants in the city. The postings are required only in restaurants with more than 15 outlets nationwide, and the rules were supposed to take effect in April. But they were delayed while the restaurant association took the city to court.

Judge Richard J. Holwell, of United States District Court in Manhattan, ruled against the restaurant association, and the association took the case to the appeals court. The case has yet to be decided, but the judges refused to delay the fines any longer.

“If the court should find in our favor and they’ve started fining people, the question arises, are they going to give the fines back?” Chuck Hunt, a spokesman for the restaurant association, said on Friday.

He said his group had never been opposed to providing information about the calorie counts. “It’s a situation where the commissioner of health has been so adamant in his insistence on the way in which it must be done that has kept us in opposition,” Mr. Hunt said, referring to Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the commissioner.

Had there been some flexibility, Mr. Hunt added, “I doubt we would have pursued the legal challenge as far.”

Some customers said the calorie counts might change people’s menu choices. But Tina Nguyen, an astrologer who was on a break from a class she was taking for a real estate license when she stopped at the Starbucks at 1372 Broadway, did not like the idea that the city had required the figures to be posted.

“This is starting to feel Big Brotherish,” she said. “If they want to change our eating behavior, the city could offer courses instead of picking on these restaurants.”

Confessions of a Barista

Paul Krassner
Confessions of a Barista
Posted July 4, 2008

Hi, my name is Paul. I'm a barista at Starbucks -- or I should say that I was a barista -- but I still feel that I am one, even though I've been given my walking papers, my pink slip, whatever you want to call it, I've been fired from my job. Just my luck, on Independence Day weekend, I'm suddenly dependent on family, friends and Unemployment Insurance.

It's all because the economy sucks so bad that it's turning inside out. They're closing down 600 "under-performing" stores -- some wise guy said, "Yeah, and 38 of 'em are on my block" -- and letting go of 12,000 employees. People can no longer afford to drive to a Starbucks and then buy a cup of coffee that costs more than a gallon of gas.

What I'll miss about my work is the atmosphere -- you know, the ambitious writers tapping away on their keyboards, and the unsuspecting readers who enjoy their output -- sort of like a literary laptop dance.

What I won't miss about my work is the feeble attempt at humor by customers. Each time somebody says, "Oh, I get it, when you say tall size, you really mean small size," they always think they're the first one who ever made that observation.

And those jokes that just make you groan out loud: "Darth Vader walks into a Starbucks and orders a grande breakfast blend. The barista says, 'Would you like room for cream?' And Darth Vader says, 'No, I prefer it on the dark side.'" Or this one: "A spark plug walks into a Starbucks and orders a venti Sumatra. And the barista says, 'Okay, I'll serve you. Just don't start anything.'" Or this: "A skeleton walks into a Starbucks and says, 'Give me a macchiato and a mop.'" And this: "A woman walks into a Starbucks for a capuccino, and the barista says, 'Would you also like to buy something from our bakery and wash it down with a new Norah Jones CD?'"

I didn't move to Los Angeles to be a barista. I'm actually an actor. At first I resented being a cross between a waiter and a vending machine. On one occasion, I really lost it. A customer was being so rude to me, criticizing me for overcharging him, I just said, "Sir, please look carefully at your receipt. The machine doesn't lie." That's when he went into a rage. Well, I served him his "latte with everything," including the saliva I managed to add.

But then I had a little epiphany. I was at the airport, and I saw a sign -- "Last Starbucks Before Terminal 2" -- and I felt a little surge of pride. I had come to identify with the brand. And I realized, all right, if I'm an actor, then I'm playing the part of a barista, and I will put all my training into that role.

As a result, I paid attention to the other actors, the ones who were playing the part of customers, and I understood that they were addicted to caffeine and I had become addicted to being their dealer. Well, my new friends, that's it for now. Thank you for listening. This is my first time at Baristas Anonymous, but you can be sure I'll be back.

'Save Our Starbucks'

Cities, Customers Launch 'Save Our Starbucks' Efforts
July 19, 2008

Now that Starbucks Corp. has disclosed the 600 locations it wants to shutter, a phenomenon is taking hold: the Save Our Starbucks campaign.

In towns as small as Bloomfield, N.M., and metropolises as large as New York, customers and city officials are starting to write letters, place phone calls, circulate petitions and otherwise plead with the coffee giant to change its mind.

"Now that it's going away, we're devastated," said Kate Walker, a facilities manager for SunGard Financial Systems, a software company, who recently learned of a store closing in New York City.

It's an unusual twist in the saga of Starbucks, one of the fastest growing retailers of the past decade. For years, Starbucks gained attention when a town didn't welcome it. Independent coffee shops complained about the big-muscled competition, and residents bemoaned the erosion of local character.

But ever since Starbucks announced this month that it would close 600 stores by early next year, as its business struggles, the rallying cause has switched to saving these endangered locations.

Ms. Walker is in charge of consolidating 525 people from seven of the company's New York City offices into a new building in January. The Starbucks inside that building, at Madison and 44th, "was something that we were using to psych people up" about the move, she said.

Her hopes were dashed after Thursday night, when Starbucks released the list of the stores that it plans to close. She scoured the Internet to find a phone number for the company's main office and jotted down a company post office box address so she can ask officials to reconsider. "I know it's going to be tough but I'll keep trying at it," Ms. Walker said. "It's sort of an extension of our office."

Although the states with the largest number of closings are California, Florida and Texas, the impact is greater proportionally elsewhere. Mississippi, for instance, is slated to lose 41% of its Starbucks locations; North Dakota, 33%; Minnesota, 32%; and Nebraska, 30%, according to an analysis by William Blair & Co. analyst Sharon Zackfia. That calculation excludes licensed Starbucks stores.

Ms. Zackfia said that the states with the highest percentage of closures include many with low population density and signify that Starbucks "expanded before some markets were ready," she said.

Online, several "Save Our Starbucks" petitions have popped up for various stores across the country, including locations in San Diego, Dallas and New York City.

Starbucks spokeswoman Deb Trevino said officials at the company are discussing how to handle such pleas; she would not give details of what they're considering. "It's not a simple answer," she said.

The closures will mean Starbucks will eliminate some 12,000 jobs, which comes out to 20 for every location it plans to shut. In addition to creating jobs and generating revenue, Starbucks stores serve as key draws for other retailers, making the loss of one a blow to the surrounding area.

When rumors started to swirl about the fate of the Starbucks on Main Street in Madison, Miss., Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler said she immediately rang up Starbucks' corporate headquarters. She didn't know for sure until the store appeared on the list released Thursday night.

One resident asked her whether a petition might help change Starbucks' mind, Ms. Butler said. She plans to call Starbucks to ask them to reassess that store.

Requests to reconsider are also coming from higher-profile entities. The to-be-closed list includes locations developed with Magic Johnson Enterprises. The basketball star has for 10 years helped open 118 stores in less economically robust urban areas that might not have otherwise attracted a Starbucks. Eric Holoman, the company's president, said the firm plans to talk with Starbucks about "applying additional filters to be certain that closure is the only option," he said.

Bloomfield, N.M, may also make its case to Starbucks, said Jo Duckwitz, who works in the city's procurement office.

Ms. Duckwitz does not think the customers in this city of less than 7,000 people will sorely miss the cafe, but it is a potential blow to the city's campaign to bring more shops to Bloomfield, she said. "We have very few retails outlets here, practically none," Ms. Duckwitz said.

Ms. Walker, the New York facilities manager, has not determined whether there is another Starbucks nearby the new office that will appease employees.

"Knowing Starbucks, there's probably one within a few blocks," she said. "But that's probably two blocks too far."

Write to Janet Adamy at and Anna Prior at

Watermen fear blue crab not coming back

Chesapeake watermen fear blue crab not coming back

RIDGE, Md. (AP) — Chesapeake Bay crabber Paul Kellam has advice for the teenage boys who help tend his traps every summer: You better have a backup plan.

It's an anxious summer for watermen harvesting the Chesapeake's best-loved seafood, the blue crab. The way some see it, the crabbing business here isn't just dying. It's already dead.

Crabs have thrived in the bottom muck of the Chesapeake and its tributaries even as centuries of overfishing harmed oysters, fish and other species in the nation's largest estuary. Now blue crabs are in trouble, too, and when they go, a way of life is sure to go with them.

"There was a time when crabbers were only out here from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now, it's about all we have left," says Kellam, 53, steering his 30-year-old rig "Christy" out of the Potomac River and onto the bay for a day of crabbing. The contradictory decor in the cabin sums up the outlook of today's waterman: a red wooden good-luck horseshoe dangles over a mud-splattered copy of "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook."

The bay's blue crab stock is down about 65 percent since 1990 due to overfishing and water pollution, according to Virginia and Maryland fisheries managers. The states have imposed steep cuts on this year's female crab harvest, aiming to reduce the number of crabs taken by more than a third.

For Kellam and his neighbors in southern Maryland, where the working rigs and crab picking houses that sustained these communities for generations have been replaced by yachts and vacation homes, hopes are dim that the blue crabs will ever come back.

"It's looking worse every year," says Bob McKay, who at 74 is the oldest working waterman in St. Mary's County. He still sells crabs out of a shed in his yard but doubts the industry will live much longer than he does. "I don't know what the solution could be."

Watermen have turned to real estate and automobile repair. They've opened seafood restaurants and bakeries.

The best way to make money on the Chesapeake these days is taking businessmen from Washington and Philadelphia on charter fishing trips. Those who still rely on crabbing are further hurt by a double punch of higher fuel costs and an economic downturn that's meant fewer consumers dropping up to $200 on a bushel of crabs.

"People don't have the disposable income. They're just not buying," says Kellam, who spends up to $150 a day on diesel, which costs about $5 a gallon at a nearby marina.

There was a time when Chesapeake watermen made their living off the winter oyster harvest, using hand tongs and later power dredges to supply most of the world's oysters. But disease and over-harvesting nearly wiped out Chesapeake oysters in the 1980s, and despite millions invested in restoration, they've never recovered. Scientists estimate the Chesapeake now contains about 1 percent of the oysters it once did.

After the oyster industry collapsed, watermen looked to hardy blue crabs to make up the slack. But the next generation may not have another option.

"I want to make a living on the water," says Randy Plummer, a chain-smoking 19-year-old who works on Kellam's crab rig. "But there ain't no future in it. Everybody knows that."

Plummer has wanted to crab since he was a boy, but is instead headed to community college this fall, at the urging of Kellam and his parents.

Even scientists who called for the harvest reductions say overfishing isn't entirely to blame.

The main culprit is water pollution and soil runoff from development throughout a watershed that is home to 10 million people. Excess nutrients wash into the Chesapeake, causing algae blooms and choking the native plant life that crabs rely on for food and habitat. In the summer, large swaths of the Chesapeake contain so little oxygen that scientists call them "dead zones," because few critters can live there.

Watermen call it "bad water," and they track it all summer, following crabs as they skitter to shallower water that contains more oxygen. Even when watermen luck out and pull up a pot full of crabs, long-timers say the crabs are nothing like they used to be.

"Sometimes in the summer, you pull the pots up, they've got algae and mud all over them. The bad water comes in and coats everything and the crabs can't stand it," Kellam explains.

He now spends hours hauling up the same number of crabs he could catch in a few pots a decade ago. And what he catches isn't as healthy-looking as the crabs he caught as a boy. Wholesalers are buying them anyway.

"They're buying a lot of stuff that 10 years ago they would've turned away," Kellam says.

Maryland and Virginia officials have responded to the watermen's plight by asking the federal government for a disaster declaration that would free up about $20 million to subsidize crabbers and seafood processors until blue crabs rebound.

Maryland is also working on sweeping revisions to state planning laws with an eye toward protecting its 3,000 or so miles of shoreline. Already this year, the state toughened zoning laws dealing with development closest to the water, a law that aims to reduce sediment and pollution running into the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

"It's certainly getting more difficult to make a living on the water," conceded Lynn Fegley, a biologist in charge of crabs for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But Fegley says the cynicism along the Chesapeake is unfounded. There will always be Chesapeake blue crabs, she says — as long as watermen lay off them when the stock dips.

"As the watershed gets more crowded, the face of the fishery may change. But people are always going to want seafood, right? It's healthy and it's delicious. What we have to do is find a way to harvest seafood that's sustainable for the future," Fegley says.

But Thomas Courtney, who sells Kellam the alewife fish he uses for bait, laughs when asked whether state efforts to revive blue crabs will bring them back.

"It ain't what we're pulling out of the water. It's what we're putting in the water," says Courtney, 62. "You've got a cornfield, 20 acres, you put 80 or 90 houses on it, hook 'em up to sewer pipes, put roads and ditches down. That's what's destroyed the bay. It ain't us. They let development take over and then, that's it, we're done."

Elton John Gets Iced (Cream)

Elton John Gets Iced (Cream)

The Rocket Man just hooked up with the ice cream guys.

Elton John has joined the rarified and rather delicious ranks of Stephen Colbert, Jerry Garcia, Monty Python, Dave Matthews and Phish, becoming the latest celebrity inspiration for a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor: Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road

The limited-edition treat will be rolled out for one week only later this month to coincide with John's first concert in the pint purveyors' home base of Vermont, the last state in the U.S. the Brit rock star has yet to perform in.

Proceeds from the flavor will benefit the rocker's own AIDS foundation.

"I can't think of a more fun way to celebrate playing my 50th state, Vermont, than having Ben & Jerry's create a special ice cream, Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road, with all my favorite flavors and ingredients," John said.

"I'm especially pleased that they will be donating the proceeds to the Elton John AIDS Foundation."

The custom flavor was concocted with input from John himself and consists of "an outrageous symphony of decadent chocolate ice cream, peanut butter cookie dough, butter brickle and white chocolate chunks."

"We're thrilled with the final combination, plus we've got the Rocket Man's seal of approval," Ben's partner-in-crime (and business), Jerry Greenfield, said.

The flavor will be available in Vermont Scoop Shops for just one week only, July 18-25, in anticipation of John's Vermont show on July 21.

Further sweetening the pot, the coneheads will also play tunes from John's latest album, Rocket Man: The Definitive Hits, as well as the DVD of his recent 60th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, in their stores that week.

Benihana founder dies in New York from cancer

Benihana founder dies in New York from cancer

MIAMI (AP) — Rocky Aoki, who sought to offer diners a sense of magic and entertainment at his Japanese steakhouse Benihana, has died after complications from cancer. He was 69.

Aoki, whose Benihana empire includes more than 100 restaurants worldwide, died Thursday night in New York from pneumonia, surrounded by his wife and six children, company spokeswoman Nancy Bauer said Friday.

Born Hiroaki Aoki, he worked in the family business, a coffee shop in Japan, and wanted to offer diners "something out of the ordinary," along with their food. Aoki also inherited his father's love for theater, according to the restaurant's Web site.

He held a spot on the Japanese Olympic wrestling team, which eventually brought him to America. He served ice cream by day and studied restaurant management at night, dreaming of opening a restaurant that would blend entertainment and food.

He opened his first restaurant in New York in 1964, naming it Benihana, which means "red flower" — the same name as his parent's coffee shop.

Designed to look like an authentic Japanese farmhouse interior, food was prepared "teppan-yaki" style at the table on a steel grill, where specially trained chefs performed knife tricks while cooking up the restaurant's signature shrimp, steak and chicken dishes.

In 1999, Miami-based Benihana purchased a majority share in Haru, an upscale, New York sushi restaurant, and eventually opened nine others. The company later acquired the RA Sushi restaurants, which bloomed to 19 locations nationally.

The Benihana empire has grown to 5,000 employees.

"Rocky's legacy is much greater than Benihana; he was also a well-known sportsman, philanthropist, environmentalist and author," Benihana chairman and CEO Joel Schwartz said in a statement.

He was an avid wrestler, balloonist and backgammon player. Family members said Aoki crossed the Pacific Ocean in a balloon with his Double Eagle V crew on a flight from Japan to California in 1981.

The Rocky H. Aoki Foundation has benefited Juvenile Diabetes, the Leukemia Society and the National Foundation for Cancer Research.

Uncle Fats' Tasty Meal of the Week

Steaks with Tuscan-Style Cannellini Salad

Cannellini, large white kidney beans, are common in Tuscan dishes. You can use any white bean, such as Great Northern or navy beans.

2 cups chopped plum tomato (about 1/2 pound)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic
1 teaspoon extravirgin olive oil
1 (16-ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
3/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper, divided
4 (4-ounce) beef tenderloin steaks, trimmed (1 inch thick)
Cooking spray


Combine tomato, rosemary, parsley, vinegar, garlic, oil, and beans in a large bowl, stirring well. Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper over bean mixture; stir to combine.
Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle steaks evenly with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add steaks to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness. Serve with bean mixture.

4 servings (serving size: 1 steak and 1/2 cup bean mixture)

Nutritional Information
CALORIES 291(35% from fat); FAT 11.2g (sat 3.9g,mono 4.8g,poly 0.9g); IRON 3.4mg; CHOLESTEROL 71mg; CALCIUM 59mg; CARBOHYDRATE 18.2g; SODIUM 700mg; PROTEIN 27.7g; FIBER 4.6g

Cooking Light, MAY 2007

The Batman Box-Office Legend Grows

The Batman Box-Office Legend Grows
Mon., Jul. 21, 2008
Joal Ryan

Within days, The Dark Knight will have made as much money, and maybe more, than Batman Begins made during its entire four-month theatrical run.

A record-shattering debut will help you perform a superhuman feat like that.

Final numbers released today show The Dark Knight amassed $158.4 million in its opening weekend, up $3.1 million from Sunday's estimates.

The movie's first three days broke down like this, per Exhibitor Relations Co.:

$67.1 million on Friday, the biggest ever opening day, single day and Friday on record
$47.7 million on Saturday
$43.6 million on Sunday, now the biggest ever Sunday on record
Despite grousing from Warner Bros.' rival studios about supposedly optimistic estimates, as related in blogger Nikke Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily, The Dark Knight beat projections every day, save for Saturday, when it just fell shy of the initial $48 million estimate.

While Friday's performance was the biggest, Sunday's performance might have been the most important.

Warners initially pegged the movie to do about $39 million. When it wound up besting that figure by $4.5 million, it put even more distance between itself and Spider-Man 3, the deposed weekend champ.

Given the final stats, The Dark Knight would seem to have indisputably topped Spider-Man 3 even down to the number of tickets sold, roughly 22.4 million to roughly 22 million—figures derived by dividing the opening weekend gross by the year's average ticket price ($7.08 in the case of Dark Knight; $6.88 for Spider-Man 3).

The indisputable becomes disputable, however, because The Dark Knight opened on 10 more IMAX screens than Spider-Man 3, and because IMAX theaters are pricier than regular old multiplexes. (Per the New York Times, the average IMAX ticket currently costs $12.80.)

The Dark Knight isn't pausing to analyze the numbers. By Friday morning, it could have itself yet another record: biggest ever opening week.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest currently holds the title, with a $196 million Friday-Thursday take. Box Office Mojo's Brandon Gray thinks The Dark Knight will challenge, and then keep going. And going.

"The Dark Knight has an excellent shot at hitting $400 million," Gray says. "[Dead Man's Chest] surpassed $400 million without a bigger opening...And I think people like The Dark Knight better than Dead Man's Chest."

Only seven movies in Hollywood history have made at least $400 million domestically; Dead Man's Chest was the most recent to join the group, in 2006.

For Gray's money, nothing The Dark Knight does will be more impressive than if, and when, it quickly surpasses Batman Begins, its predecessor in the franchise, which, no slouch, grossed $205.3 million in 2005.

Says Gray: "That is quite exceptional."

'The Dark Knight' triumphs: $66.4 million on Friday

'The Dark Knight' triumphs: $66.4 million on Friday
Jul 19 2008

Everyone in Hollywood is shaking their heads in marvel at "The Dark Knight." It looks like the film is headed to a historic opening weekend. The Associated Press story has the math about all-time top-grossing Men in Tights, Batman and Spider-Man:

Batman's joust with the Joker has set another box office record.

Stoked by fan fever over the manic performance of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, "The Dark Knight" set a one-day box-office record with $66.4 million on opening day, Warner Bros. head of distribution Dan Fellman said Saturday.

The movie's Friday haul surpassed the previous record of $59.8 million set last year by "Spider-Man 3." "The Dark Knight" might break the opening-weekend record of $151.1 million, also held by "Spider-Man 3."

more round-up after the jump

Over at the Deadline Hollywood blog, the always-caffeinated Nikki Finke is spinning like a top over the numbers, which do indeed look huge.

SATURDAY AM: Well, look who's laughing now! Warner Bros, because The Dark Knight's Friday opening was even bigger than first thought, according to final numbers -- $66.4M in North American gross from a record-setting wide release of 4,366 theaters. That includes the record-setting $18.5M in midnight-to-3AM shows from a smaller pool of 3,040 venues. Now Warner Bros has smashed the record for the biggest midnight show ever (better than the $16.9M set by 2005's Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith then playing in 2,915 venues), and the biggest single day gross ever (better than the $59.8M set by May 4, 2007's Spider-Man 3 in 4,252 venues, including midnight shows). So what about the weekend total? "$153M to $160M -- it all depends on Saturday results," my Warner Bros insider just told me. That would be ANOTHER record-smasher!

At, there's a "look at those kooky fans" feature:

Nick Patten apparently has never been happier to go work on two hours of sleep. He went to a 12:05 a.m. Friday showing of "The Dark Knight" and says he didn't get home until 3:30 a.m. "I think one day of being tired at work, drinking Red Bulls to stay awake all day is well worth staying up late the night before to see a great movie before the rest of the world does," said Patten, a multimedia designer from Queens, New York. Such fatigue appears to be common Friday, hours after "The Dark Knight" premiered with thousands of showings that started at midnight and ran into the wee hours of the morning.

--Geoff Boucher

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight
No joke, Batman
Release Date: 2008
Ebert Rating: ****
Jul 16, 2008
By Roger Ebert

“Batman” isn’t a comic book anymore. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy. It creates characters we come to care about. That’s because of the performances, because of the direction, because of the writing, and because of the superlative technical quality of the entire production. This film, and to a lesser degree “Iron Man,” redefine the possibilities of the “comic-book movie.”

“The Dark Knight” is not a simplistic tale of good and evil. Batman is good, yes, The Joker is evil, yes. But Batman poses a more complex puzzle than usual: The citizens of Gotham City are in an uproar, calling him a vigilante and blaming him for the deaths of policemen and others. And the Joker is more than a villain. He’s a Mephistopheles whose actions are fiendishly designed to pose moral dilemmas for his enemies.

The key performance in the movie is by the late Heath Ledger, as the Joker. Will he become the first posthumous Oscar winner since Peter Finch? His Joker draws power from the actual inspiration of the character in the silent classic “The Man Who Laughs” (1928). His clown's makeup more sloppy than before, his cackle betraying deep wounds, he seeks revenge, he claims, for the horrible punishment his father exacted on him when he was a child. In one diabolical scheme near the end of the film, he invites two ferry-loads of passengers to blow up the other before they are blown up themselves. Throughout the film, he devises ingenious situations that force Batman (Christian Bale), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to make impossible ethical decisions. By the end, the whole moral foundation of the Batman legend is threatened.

Because these actors and others are so powerful, and because the movie does not allow its spectacular special effects to upstage the humans, we’re surprised how deeply the drama affects us. Eckhart does an especially good job as Harvey Dent, whose character is transformed by a horrible fate into a bitter monster. It is customary in a comic book movie to maintain a certain knowing distance from the action, to view everything through a sophisticated screen. “The Dark Knight” slips around those defenses and engages us.

Yes, the special effects are extraordinary. They focus on the expected explosions and catastrophes, and have some superb, elaborate chase scenes. The movie was shot on location in Chicago, but it avoids such familiar landmarks as Marina City, the Wrigley Building or the skyline. Chicagoans will recognize many places, notably La Salle Street and Lower Wacker Drive, but director Nolan is not making a travelogue. He presents the city as a wilderness of skyscrapers, and a key sequence is set in the still-uncompleted Trump Tower. Through these heights, the Batman moves at the end of strong wires, or sometimes actually flies, using his cape as a parasail.

The plot involves nothing more or less than the Joker’s attempts to humiliate the forces for good and expose Batman’ secret identity, showing him to be a poser and a fraud. He includes Gordon and Dent on his target list, and contrives cruel tricks to play with the fact that Bruce Wayne once loved, and Harvey Dent now loves, Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The tricks are more cruel than he realizes, because the Joker doesn’t know Batman’s identity. Heath Ledger has a good deal of dialogue in the movie, and a lot of it isn’t the usual jabs and jests we’re familiar with: It’s psychologically more complex, outlining the dilemmas he has constructed, and explaining his reasons for them. The screenplay by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who first worked together on “Memento”) has more depth and poetry than we might have expected.

Two of the supporting characters are crucial to the action, and are played effortlessly by the great actors Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Freeman, as the scientific genius Lucius Fox, is in charge of Bruce Wayne’s underground headquarters, and makes an ethical objection to a method of eavesdropping on all of the citizens of Gotham City. His stand has current political implictions. Caine is the faithful butler Alfred, who understands Wayne better than anybody, and makes a decision about a crucial letter.

Nolan also directed the previous, and excellent, “Batman Begins” (2005), which went into greater detail than ever before about Bruce Wayne’s origins and the reasons for his compulsions. Now it is the Joker’s turn, although his past is handled entirely with dialogue, not flashbacks. There are no references to Batman’s childhood, but we certainly remember it, and we realize that this conflict is between two adults who were twisted by childhood cruelty — one compensating by trying to do good, the other by trying to do evil. Perhaps they instinctively understand that themselves.

Something fundamental seems to be happening in the upper realms of the comic-book movie. “Spider-Man II” (2004) may have defined the high point of the traditional film based on comic-book heroes. A movie like the new “Hellboy II” allows its director free rein for his fantastical visions. But now “Iron Man” and even more so “The Dark Knight” move the genre into deeper waters. They realize, as some comic-book readers instinctively do, that these stories touch on deep fears, traumas, fantasies and hopes. And the Batman legend, with its origins in film noir, is the most fruitful one for exploration.

In his two Batman movies, Nolan has freed the character to be a canvas for a broader scope of human emotion. For Bruce Wayne is a deeply troubled man, let there be no doubt, and if ever in exile from his heroic role, it would not surprise me what he finds himself capable of doing.

Cast & Credits

Bruce Wayne: Christian Bale

The Joker: Heath Ledger

Harvey Dent: Aaron Eckhart

Alfred: Michael Caine

Rachel: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Gordon: Gary Oldman

Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Running time: 152 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for for intense sequences of violence and some menace).

The Batsuit gets a makeover,1,5720066.story

The Batsuit gets a makeover
The 'Dark Knight' hero has tossed the sweaty rubber and molded-plastic costumes of yesteryear and sports a cooler, motocross-style flexi-suit this time around.
By Tom Russo
Special to The Times
July 20, 2008

WHEN "THE Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan and Oscar-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming considered how they would retool Christian Bale's Batman armor for the new movie, one question leaped to mind immediately: "Why, in 2008, would a superhero put on a rubber suit?" Hemming asks. "Why would he wear something that made him less active and unbelievably, unpleasantly hot? He wouldn't. He'd use all the technology available to be as comfortable as possible."

So when audiences get a look at the new, heavily segmented Batsuit with its Kevlar pecs and abs and exposed titanium-mesh under layer, they should know that this was no George Clooney Batnipple exercise in impishly messing with tradition. Rather, the "Dark Knight" crew was adhering to the creative mandate that Nolan first set on "Batman Begins": Ground the proceedings as much as possible in real-world believability. As costume effects supervisor Graham Churchyard pointedly puts it, "You're supposed to be scuba diving in a neoprene body suit, not kickboxing."

The filmmakers admit they had originally discussed many of the same design ideas for "Begins." At the time, though, they found themselves steered back toward the established molded-latex look by budget considerations, as well as concerns that they were already redefining the character pretty radically. "In the first movie, we spent the money on the car, the Tumbler," Nolan says. "But for the second film, I was intent on spending on the costume." A good six months in the making, the new design was replicated for 25 suits, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"This time we made the suit that Chris really wanted," says Churchyard, who oversaw a team of 40 craftsmen, from sculptors to computerized milling machine operators, in the production's London fabrication workshop. "In 'Begins,' there's that pre-suit that Bruce Wayne gets from [ Morgan Freeman's] Lucius Fox and sprays black. The script tells us it contains Kevlar weave and various layers. But now, it actually does. We've taken the pre-suit to the next stage, really."

While much of the costume development on the last go-round involved research into cutting-edge military and survival wear, the focus on "Dark Knight" was on motocross gear and extreme-sports apparel. (Hemming says it's purely coincidental that Batman races around on a motorcycle in the movie -- although the advent of this "Batpod" did lead directly to a Batpack, modeled on a bat's folded wings, for getting that flowing cape the heck out of the way.) Nolan liked the last Batsuit's overall silhouette, the shoulder line and the look of the cowl, but he wanted something that offered protection with greater freedom of movement. "Christian is so active, and does so many movements that previous Batmen weren't able to do," says Hemming, "it was important to us that he be able to do them even more."

At 30 pounds, the redesigned armor actually weighed slightly more than the "Begins" model, but its 110 component parts better distributed the load and let in a bit of air. "I hate to describe it this way, but the suit's like a big sneaker," Churchyard says. "It has armored elements with carbon fiber running through them, but also semi-rigid areas for flexibility, and mesh panels that allow it to breathe. You end up with these kinds of crumple zones that allow you to bend, to crunch."

Bale half-joked on the last movie that it wasn't difficult for him to get into brooding character when wearing his costume was such a brutally constricting experience. One of the biggest problems was the cowl, which was anchored to the suit's trunk only slightly less stiffly than it had been back in Michael Keaton's caped-crusading days nearly two decades ago. "That 'Begins' image of Batman with his head forward and that big, muscular, panther neck was great as a poster," says Churchyard. "But that's kind of what was stopping him from moving." So, after years of actors having to do "the Batmove," turning their head and shoulders in the same motion, the design team finally figured out a way to section off the cowl. A series of rings seamlessly incorporated around the base allowed it to function as a piece separate from the rest of the costume.

'I could turn my neck'

SUMMING UP the differences between the old Batsuit and this season's model, Bale sounds like he was liberated from something akin to that Bhutanese prison at the opening of "Begins." "For one thing, I could turn my neck," he says. "For another, I didn't get awful headaches just from wearing it. It was an entirely different experience. It was fewer pieces and it didn't require a team of people to get me in and out of it."

Nolan's satisfaction with the outfit is reflected in how visible it is in the movie. In the previous installment, the aesthetic approach was to portray Batman as a shadowy avenger -- minimally lit, always seen at night, and rendered as matte as possible to heighten the effect. Here, he steps into the light. Warner Bros.' publicity images have favored keeping the dark in "Dark Knight," but a recent, brightly photographed "Got Milk?" ad featuring Bale in costume showed every little detail -- and generated much discussion among fans. "A big thing we were after was giving the suit more texture," Hemming says. "Visually, you're getting much more information as to how it works."

"We wanted something that was real, something functional," Nolan says. "In the first film, it was designed to look real, but the mechanics and surfaces of it were not as they appeared. In this film, the suit is as it appears -- and it works."

Times staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.

Theater goes dark for Ebert, Roeper,0,5189340.column

Theater goes dark for Ebert, Roeper
Phil Rosenthal Media
July 22, 2008

The curtain has come down on "At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper."

The aisle may vanish too.

Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert and columnist Richard Roeper are cutting ties with the TV franchise that Disney-ABC Domestic Television has syndicated nationally for 22 years.

Each cited major changes they say Disney plans to make to the movie-review program that for three decades has forced filmmakers and studio executives on both coasts and beyond to pay heed to judgments of their work in Chicago, the heart of flyover country.

Industry sources said that Disney is contemplating a shift to more of a Hollywood focus, even though the program would continue to be taped in Chicago, where the production enjoys a tax credit from the state of Illinois.

With the start of the show's 2008-09 season less than five weeks away, "At the Movies" staffers were awaiting word from Roni Selig, a senior vice president with Disney's Buena Vista Productions, on just how many of the talked-about potential changes, including possible elimination of the show's familiar "across the aisle" theater set, will be realized.

Disney had no comment Monday as details were being finalized. Selig did not return a call to her New York office.

A series of replacement hosts—including likely successors Ben Lyons of E! Entertainment Television and Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies—has been brought to WLS-Ch. 7's State and Lake studios to audition in a variety of formats in recent weeks. But Disney seemed to be caught off-guard by the timing of Roeper's statement late Sunday, and Ebert's follow-up Monday.

Lyons said he was "still sort of uncertain as to what's going on," so he couldn't comment. And, yes, he is the son of longtime movie reviewer Jeffrey Lyons, who was one of the successors to Ebert and the late Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel when they left public television's "Sneak Previews" for commercial syndication in 1982. Ben Lyons now co-hosts the syndicated "Reel Talk" for NBC Universal.

Mankiewicz, the grandson of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and great-nephew of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, could not be reached for comment.

Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips has been the most recent replacement for Ebert, who has been absent from the program for two years because of health issues that have robbed him of his voice. Phillips has a multiyear contract with Disney, but his future with "At the Movies" is in limbo.

"I haven't talked to Disney yet, but I wish them well in the new format," Phillips said. "I suspect, especially as they retool the show, there's going to be plenty of room in the marketplace for competitors. Whether or not I'm involved, I have no idea."

Roeper, who was unavailable for comment, wished Disney "the best of luck with their new show, whatever form it may take." He plans to continue co-hosting "a movie review show that honors the standards established by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert more than 30 years ago."

Roeper, who rejected a Disney renewal, reportedly has several years left on his contract with the Sun-Times and is appearing regularly on Starz cable, introducing documentaries on moviemaking. He has a book out, "Debunked!: Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century."

Because of his Disney contract, Roeper cannot sign a deal for any new program until after his final program airs the weekend of Aug. 16 on Chicago's WLS-Ch. 7.

Among those interested in syndicating a new program with Roeper and possibly Phillips is said to be MGM Worldwide Television, but an MGM spokesman could not confirm that beyond saying the company is aggressively looking for new product.

Siskel and Ebert began reviewing movies in tandem in 1975 on Chicago PBS outlet WTTW-Ch. 11, which eventually took their program national. The pair jumped to commercial TV through Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co.'s TV syndication wing in 1982, switching to Disney in 1986.

The duo engaged viewers talking about films—both big and small, domestic and international—in a sophisticated way through their obvious passion for movies and debate.

Siskel died in 1999 and was replaced by Roeper.

"Gene and I felt the formula was simplicity itself: Two film critics, sitting across the aisle from each other in a movie balcony, debating the new films of the week," Ebert said. "Few shows have been on the air so long and remained so popular. We made television history."

Pickens says gas and wind would slash oil imports

Pickens says gas and wind would slash oil imports
Tue Jul 8, 2008
By Timothy Gardner

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Texas energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens on Tuesday called for a massive switch to natural gas as a transportation fuel and a boost in wind power in a plan aimed at reducing U.S. foreign oil dependence by a more than a third.

The Pickens Plan, which includes exploiting domestic natural gas supplies in new areas like East Texas and Appalachia, could replace 38 percent of U.S. oil imports, he said.

"U.S. natural gas can replace foreign oil. It's the only natural resource we have that can do that," Pickens said during a press event for his energy plan.

The 10-year plan would reduce the annual U.S. oil import bill of $700 billion, at oil prices of $140 a barrel, by hundreds of billions of dollars, he said. The country imports about 70 percent of its crude.

His plan comes as U.S. consumers who have already been hit by the credit and housing crunches are now facing record gasoline prices as oil prices rally on rising demand from developing countries and violence in the Middle East.

Pickens, a life-long Republican, hopes to discuss the plan with both U.S. presidential candidates. He is launching a television advertising campaign, to cost tens of millions of dollars, for the plan.

Earlier this year, Pickens announced he would spend $10 billion to build the world's biggest wind farm in Texas that should start generating power by 2011.

When asked if his plan is a way to ensure his investments would make him even richer, the 80-year-old billionaire said he's not concerned about making still more money.


Pickens' vision has two steps.

First, investors would boost development of wind farms, particularly in what he called the U.S. wind corridor, a slice of the country from Texas to North Dakota. It's an "unbelievable asset that's not been touched," he said.

The extra wind power, according to the plan, would replace the natural gas the country burns to generate power. Currently the country gets 22 percent of its power from natural gas.

Then, the freed-up natural gas could be used to power vehicles, but the country would have to convert a large share of its vehicles to run on compressed natural gas.

Pickens said the cost savings would reduce oil prices "substantially." But he stopped short of predicting by how much.

"You never know how much demand will rise in places like China and India," said Pickens, who heads the hedge fund BP Capital. "I don't think we'll ever see prices below $100 a barrel."

Analysts said the plan was no simple solution.

"The U.S. will indeed use a lot more wind power in coming years. In that sense, Pickens is a visionary," said Chris Kostas, a senior natural gas analyst at Energy Security Analysis Inc in Boston.

"It's his idea of using natural gas to convert a large transportation fleet that's less convincing," said Kostas, adding that it would be hard to use enough of the fuel to cut global oil prices.

A new system of natural gas-filling stations would have to be built and cars would have to be converted to run on the fuel.

Pickens acknowledged the plan has some high hurdles.

The government would need to create power transmission corridors from the heart of the country to the coasts, he said. The effort would have to be comparable to the interstate highway system former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower created during the Cold War to improve the mobility of the military, Pickens said.

"This comes down to the closest thing to war, while not having war," Pickens said about the imperative for the U.S. to tap its own natural resources to reduce its foreign oil habit.

(Additional reporting by Matthew Robinson; Editing by Christian Wiessner)

Gore sets 'moon shot' goal on climate change

Gore sets 'moon shot' goal on climate change
Jul 17, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) - Just as John F. Kennedy set his sights on the moon, Al Gore is challenging the nation to produce every kilowatt of electricity through wind, sun and other Earth-friendly energy sources within 10 years, an audacious goal he hopes the next president will embrace.

The Nobel Prize-winning former vice president said fellow Democrat Barack Obama and Republican rival John McCain are "way ahead" of most politicians in the fight against global climate change.

Rising fuel costs, climate change and the national security threats posed by U.S. dependence on foreign oil are conspiring to create "a new political environment" that Gore said will sustain bold and expensive steps to wean the nation off fossil fuels.

"I have never seen an opportunity for the country like the one that's emerging now," Gore told The Associated Press in an interview previewing a speech on global warming he was to deliver Thursday in Washington.

Gore said he fully understands the magnitude of the challenge.

The Alliance for Climate Protection, a bipartisan group that he chairs, estimates the cost of transforming the nation to so-called clean electricity sources at $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion over 30 years in public and private money. But he says it would cost about as much to build ozone-killing coal plants to satisfy current demand.

"This is an investment that will pay itself back many times over," Gore said. "It's an expensive investment but not compared to the rising cost of continuing to invest in fossil fuels."

Called an alarmist by conservatives, Gore has made combatting global warming his signature issue, a campaign that has been recognized worldwide - from an Academy Award to a Nobel Prize. He portrayed Thursday's speech as the latest and most important phase in his effort to build public opinion in favor of alternative fuels.

He knows politicians fear to act unless voters are willing to sacrifice - and demand new fuels.

"I hope to contribute to a new political environment in this country that will allow the next president to do what I think the next president is going to think is the right thing to do," Gore said. "But the people have to play a part." He likened his challenge to Kennedy's pledge in May 1961 to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Gore narrowly lost the presidential race in 2000 to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush after a campaign in which his prescient views on climate change took a back seat to other issues. While dismissing a suggestion that he pulled his punches eight years ago, Gore said his goal now is to "enlarge the political space" within which politicians can "deal with the climate challenge."

To meet his 10-year goal, Gore said nuclear energy output would continue at current levels while the nation dramatically increases its use of solar, wind, geothermal and so-called clean coal energy. Huge investments must also be made in technologies that reduce energy waste and link existing grids, he said.

If the nation fails to act, the cost of oil will continue to rise as fast-growing China and India increase demand, Gore said. Sustained addiction to oil also will place the nation at the mercy of oil-producing regimes, he said, and the globe would suffer irreparable harm.

Government experts recently predicted that, at the current rate, world energy demand will grow 50 percent over the next two decades. The Energy Information Administration also said in its long-range forecast to 2030 that the world is not close to abandoning fossil fuels despite their effect on global warming.

While electricity production is only part of the nation's energy and climate change problem, Gore said, "If we meet this challenge we will solve the rest of it."

Water, Water Everywhere on Mars

Water, Water Everywhere on Mars
July 17, 2008

The red planet was once awash in water, say scientists -- not boiling water, but benign seas that may have been suitable for life.

"There was apparently pervasive water present during the first 600 to 700 million years," said Brown University geologist John Mustard, co-author of a paper scheduled to be published today in Nature.

Mustard's team studied data returned by the Compact Reconnaisance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, an instrument designed to find traces of minerals that interact with water.

Earlier studies have found evidence of ancient gushers, and the Mars Phoenix Lander recently found ice. But Mustard's analysis provides the clearest picture yet of planet-wide hydrological impacts -- and, most tantalizingly, CRISM showed widespread deposits of clay-like minerals that form only at relatively low temperatures.

Ancient Martian oceans may have been salty, but at least they weren't boiling. And perhaps, said Mustard, they weren't dead.

"I think the prospects for present life were dim, but for past life, during this habitable era, they were really quite good," he said.

As for whether evidence of life will remain after four billion years, Mustard said that "it's probably better-preserved on Mars than on the Earth, where plate tectonics has recycled the crust."

He continued, "On Mars, many more elements from that early history are still present. And we do think whiffs of life are preserved in the Earth record, so I think Mars stands a good chance of preserving signatures, if they ever existed."

Country of the Year: Venezuela

Hot Women AND Cheap Oil
22-year-old Dayana Mendoza, Miss Venezuela 2008, wins the title of Miss Universe 2008.

McKinney running for president as Green candidate

McKinney running for president as Green candidate
Story Highlights
Cynthia McKinney, ex-Georgia congresswoman, defeats three for nomination
Party spokesman: "Every vote that she gets helps the Green Party"
McKinney, a former Democrat, served six terms in Congress

(CNN) -- The liberal environmentalist Green Party nominated former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney as its presidential candidate Saturday.

McKinney, 53, held off three rivals to win the party's nomination during its convention in Chicago, Illinois. She picked journalist and activist Rosa Clemente as her running mate.

Green Party spokeswoman Scott McLarty acknowledged McKinney was a "long shot" for the White House, but said, "Every vote that she gets helps the Green Party."

"The United States needs an alternative party," McLarty said. "The narrow two-party system we have right now has not served us very well."

McKinney represented a suburban district of Atlanta, Georgia, as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives for six terms -- five consecutively.

First elected in 1992, she lost a primary challenge in 2002 after suggesting in a radio interview that members of the Bush administration stood to profit from the war that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

In 2004 she ran again and won with a low-key campaign in which she largely avoided controversy. But voters ousted her again in 2006 after she was accused of a physical altercation with a U.S. Capitol Police officer who questioned her after failing to recognize her at a security checkpoint.

The most successful Green Party presidential candidate was consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who drew nearly 3 percent of the vote in 2000. Nader is running again this year, this time as an independent.

Earlier this year, the Libertarian Party nominated McKinney's onetime House colleague, ex-Republican congressman Bob Barr, as its presidential nominee. Barr also represented a district in the Atlanta suburbs during his four terms in Congress.

CNN's Brendan Gage contributed to this report.

U.S. is "a Nation of Whiners"

Gerald McEntee
McCain's Out-of-Touch Co-Chair Says U.S. is "a Nation of Whiners"
July 10, 2008

Read More: Economy, John McCain, McCain Economy, Mental Recession, Out Of Touch, Phil Gramm, Phil Gramm Mental Recession, Secretary Of The Treasury, Politics News

Every time you look around lately, John McCain and friends are spouting off about important issues like the economy, globalization and Social Security. And with each passing day, they give Americans a clearer sign of just how out of touch they really are.

Earlier this week, Senator McCain called the system that finances Social Security retiree benefits "an absolute disgrace," even though the pay-as-you-go system remains successful for millions of Americans since it was established during FDR's administration.

Now, the McCain campaign's co-chair, former Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, says that America's economy isn't doing all that badly. In fact, he told The Washington Times: "We've never been more dominant; we've never had more natural advantages than we have today."

Phil Gramm makes a living heading up a Swiss bank, thus he's insulated from reality. He's as out of touch as John McCain. The facts don't register with these multi-millionaires, just as they didn't register with George W. Bush.

McCain, Gramm and Bush are the kind of guys who see "strong fundamentals," when most Americans see six months of job losses, declining wages, the highest foreclosure rates since the Great Depression, and skyrocketing fuel and food prices.

Now, Phil Gramm tells The Washington Times, we have "sort of become a nation of whiners. ... You hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline."

How much more evidence do we need that Senator McCain's top economic advisor -- the man McCain says he's considering for Secretary of the Treasury -- hasn't got a clue about the real problems facing America's working families?

In Gramm's America, the current economic downturn we're living through isn't so bad. "You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession," he told the Times. "We've never been more dominant; we've never had more natural advantages than we have today," he went on to say.

Gramm's talk of "mental depression" replays Senator McCain's assertion in January 2008: Concerns about our downward spiraling economy are "psychological." Speaking at a Town Hall, McCain labeled "the fundamentals of our economy" as "still strong" and shrugged off worries by saying "a lot of this is psychological."

Gramm won't even go that far. He's says the economic downturn is a fiction created by the media to boost sales, explaining: "Misery sells newspapers. ... Thank God the economy is not as bad as you read in the newspapers every day." Someone should clue this multi-millionaire in: Gasoline is going for more than $4 a gallon, and a lot of Americans can't afford a daily paper these days.

Americans aren't whining. They are voicing their justified frustration with policies that put profits over people. They have had it with politicians who stand in the way of change -- like providing health care for all. Most of all, they are tired of being told that this country's problems are imaginary. Those problems are very real to the millions who have lost their jobs, their homes and the hopes of a secure retirement. They want leaders who will fight for them, instead of leaders who refuse to deal with reality.

Quote of the Month

"I want to cut his nuts off."
Jesse Jackson on Barack Obama

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wall Streeters say speculators double gas prices

Wall Streeters say speculators double gas prices
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor
Jul 2, 2008

Gas could fall to $2 if Congress acts, analysts say, says Market Watch. In fact, the article's lead paragraph states, “The price of retail gasoline could fall by half, to around $2 a gallon, within 30 days of passage of a law to limit speculation in energy-futures markets, four energy analysts told Congress on Monday.” And you thought it was just a matter of over-consumption.

In a rare moment of candor, appearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, first Michael Masters of Masters Capital Management told members that the price of oil would quickly drop closer to its marginal of around $65 to $75 a barrel, like half the current $135-40. Ironically, this seems to jibe with my article, Ahmadinejad calls oil price hikes ‘manipulated,’ in which he said, “Speculation is the reason behind the increasingly high prices of crude, not a lack of supply.”

This is probably an historic event, having Wall Streeters and the Iranian president agree. Additionally, “Fadel Gheit of Oppenheimer & Co., Edward Krapels of Energy Security Analysis and Roger Diwan of PFS Energy Consultants agree with Masters’ assessment at a hearing on proposed legislation to limit speculation in futures markets.” Will meetings turn into action?

Krapels thought it would take less than 30 days to drive prices lower, since fund managers would quickly liquidate their stakes in futures markets. Gheit said, “Record oil prices are inflated by speculation and not justified by market fundamentals. Based on supply and demand fundamentals, crude-oil prices should not be above $60 per barrel.”

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the full committee, said “Energy speculation has become a growth industry and it is time for the government to intervene. We need to consider a full range of options to counter this rapacious speculation.” These were his strongest words yet on the oil wolves. In fact, Market Watch mentions, he “introduced a bill on June 11 to get the Energy Department fact-gathering on energy prices, including the role played by speculators.”

How the scamming works

Masters pointed out that there are two kinds of futures market speculators. Traditional speculators need to hedge because they take physical possession of the commodities. But index speculators merely allocate a portion of their portfolio to commodity futures. Index speculation, according to Masters, damages price-discovery mechanisms provided by futures markets. Said simply: with index speculation you posses nothing but paper, so you play more easily.

The committee is looking for legislation to curtain index speculation, requiring higher-margin (money down) requirements; also requiring position limits for speculators and more disclosure of positions; lastly, preventing pension funds and investment banks from owning commodities. Why? It raises risks of loss of funds, either from pensions or bank assets.

By the way, both presidential candidates endorse closing the loopholes encouraging speculation in energy markets. But then I’m sure they endorse motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag. The question is how committed are they to really doing something about it?

You may remember the infamous Enron and “Enron Loophole.” Financial writer Pam Martens, in her article How a Shady Citigroup Subsidiary Secretly Makes Billions in the Oil Market, described the “Enron Loophole” this way: “What the Energy Group had long lobbied for and finally received from its Federal regulator was the breathtaking ability to trade oil contracts and oil derivatives secretly in the over-the-counter (OTC) market, thus avoiding the scrutiny of regulated commodity exchanges, their CFTC regulator, and Congress . . . The change in the law occurred via the Commodity Futures Modernization ACT (CFMA) and is called the Enron Loophole.” No scrutiny, no regulation, no honesty. That simple.

You may also remember that Enron, before bankrupting itself, bankrupted the State of California. It cornered energy sources then raised electricity prices sky-high, gouging California into bankruptcy and blaming financial failure on Governor Gray Davis. He was then subjected to a dubious recall vote that handed California to the “Terminator,” an apt title in this context, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It was a new low that derived actually from George HW Bush’s support of legislation that allowed states to deregulate energy suppliers in the early '90s, not so different from the savings and loan debacle he inspired by deregulating standards for loans and savings bank investments. That doozey cost the U.S. some $300 billion underwriting bank failures.

Returning to “The Energy Group,” it is described by Martens this way: “Combing through government archives, the first noteworthy appearance of Phibro [a Citigroup subsidiary] occurs on April 6, 2001, when the Wall Street law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell sent a letter to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the federal regulator of oil and other commodity trading, acknowledging that it was representing 'the Energy Group.'

“The letter was noteworthy because it delineated just who had teamed up to grease the oil rigging in Washington: namely, two investment banks (Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley); a house of cards that would later collapse (Enron); a proprietary trading firm inside a Frankenbank (Phibro inside Citigroup); and two real energy firms (BP Amoco and Koch Industries).” Takes your breath away, doesn’t it, if not a piece of your wallet.

Low-profile Phibro by the way is still in operation and has earned billions in trading of “crude oil, refined oil products, natural gas, and other commodities.” Citigroup (parent of Citibank) acquired Phibro in its merger with Traveler’s Group in 1998. And on and on it goes, how this shady subsidiary of Citigroup, Phibro, continues to make billions with its trading shenanigans for the financial “behemoth” Citigroup, the first bank with a trillion dollars in assets. Yet, it’s made at great cost to the American public.

Bankrupting America

It’s no surprise that sleepy-headed Congress is finally opening its eyes to speculation corruption, given the impact on food prices, as well as on heating, transportation, and manufacturing prices, to mention a few. Any layman can see how unbridled hikes in oil prices will suck his wallet, his savings, his assets, his way of life dry as a bone. It happened in California. It can happen to America.

Yet, as the Market Watch article reports, “Neal Ryan, manager at Ryan, Oil & Gas Partners, said that 'Speculation is the root of capitalism. If the speculation is forced out of the U.S. exchanges, it’ll simply show up on other exchanges that are OTC like the ICE, or new exchanges will pop up to allow for the spec trades to continue functioning.'”

If this kind of unregulated, secret speculation is allowed to continue in any exchange, new or old, you can kiss our economy goodbye. Unregulated speculation is not the root of our economy, it’s the bane of our economy, and will continue to poison it.

Yet Ryan went on to say that “he does see a reason for Congress to look at eliminating aspects such as allowing West Texas intermediate crude oil futures to trade on foreign markets and the ‘Enron loophole,' but ‘these exchanges are currently functioning as they are supposed to in a free marketplace.’” Again, free means “free to gouge money from the general public to enrich a number of ruthless individuals.” That’s not the same as a free country regulated by a set of laws that protects all of its citizens from predators.

Ryan hedged his way further on the issue of regulating speculation by saying, “The creation of a comprehensive U.S. energy policy that tackles issues of increasing domestic supply and reining in consumer demand via conservation should be Congress’ focus. 'Instead we’re on bended knee begging the Saudis to put more oil on the market and talking about shutting down spec trades.'”

Yes, a comprehensive U.S. energy policy, including developing alternate renewable sources of energy, is exactly what we need. But we don’t have one after eight years of Bush, and god knows how many years of the fixed-in-their-ways automakers and oilmen dictating, via their lobbyists, that Congress do nothing. Alternate energy sources could rein in consumer demand for oil without ruining the economy via price gouging.

Also, we are “on bended knee begging the Saudis to put more oil on the market,” since we became addicted to their inexpensive crude during WW II when FDR sewed up Saudi production to fuel our armies in our life or death struggle with the original Axis of Evil.

Unfortunately, in the post-war period alternative alternate energy sources were buried, killed, or granted marginal growth. It’s not that we lack the imagination to find alternative solutions. The oil thrombus caught in the body politic has blocked all other thinking and will, if not surgically removed, topple us, thanks, in part, to the Neil Ryans of the world and the speculators who work with them -- investment banks, hedge funds, private financial entities.

The bottom line

. . . is the lead paragraph from Martens’ article. “If you want to flush out market manipulations, don’t turn to the sleuths in Congress. They’ve been probing trading of the oil markets for two years and completely missed a company [Phibro] at the center of the action. During that period, a barrel of crude oil has risen from $50 to $140, leaving a wide swath of Americans facing a choice this coming winter of buying food or paying their heating bill.”

The speculators, including Citigroup and its Phibro subsidiary, could care less. But Martens points out a graver danger: “Today, the situation is as follows: Citigroup has taken $42 billion in credit losses and writedowns in the past year, just announced that more writedowns are coming, and the Fed has an intravenous money feeding tube hooked up between its vault and this banking/brokerage/subprime mortgage lending/oil trading mad scientist experiment.” The question is why is the American taxpayer keeping this trillion dollar Titanic afloat?

Lastly, Martens points out how Citigroup describes itself: “Currently our capabilities include trading and marketing derivatives/structured products in power, natural, crude and crude products.” She adds, “Enron also called itself the ‘premier’ energy trading organization. Apparently impressed with that model, Citigroup Energy has hired a significant number of former Enron traders.”

All I can say is watch your wallet, America. They’re coming for it, and your savings, pension, IRA, K-401, and house. The Citi Never Sleeps, as the ads say. And if we can’t turn to Congress for sleuthing, what financial revolution in this country can turn the speculative corruption around, that is, before it brings us another 1929?

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York. Reach him at