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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: March 31, 2007


THE GROWING SCANDAL in England over the manipulation of voters on telephone calls to television shows may spread to other countries. It’s long been known that some shows make more money from gullible viewers phoning in than they do from advertising, and now there are indications that some encourage suckers to vote long after the winners have already been picked. Qualifying questions are made deliberately simple to encourage more income-producing toll-rate calls (split between the shows and the phone companies) and London’s ITV channel reports getting up to 6,000 calls per minute. In Budapest a company called Telemedia InteractTV trains comely ladies in different languages how to coax more calls from naïve viewers of live game shows — usually the same show — that goes out to 40 different countries.

IT WAS 75 YEARS AGO when Alice Liddell Hargreaves visited Columbia University to celebrate the centenary of Lewis Carroll’s birthday. When the Lewis Carroll Society of North America meets there on April 14, it will see Dennis Potter’s 1985 movie, Dreamchild, about that visit by Carroll’s real-life Alice.<

‘ENERGY BALANCE’ is the term used to define the ratio between the energy expended and the energy gained when manufacturing ethanol. Made with corn, for example, the energy balance is 1.3, meaning that the ethanol yields 30% more energy than was needed to produce it. For ethanol made with sugar cane in Brazil, the energy balance is 8.3, so in a sensible world the U.S. would benefit both parties by buying Cuba’s surplus sugar crop. Why does it prefer to use corn, a valuable food crop that could help the Third World? Well, America’s corn growers bribing a few congressmen could have something to do with it.

At any rate, reports the Economist, now there’s a new player in the game: ethanol, made from trees, grasses and other types of biomass containing lots of cellulose. With “treethanol,” the energy balance can reach 16.1, once scientists have solved the job of breaking down the cellulose more efficiently. New Zealand’s research institutes hopes to solve this problem soon, thus making itself self-sufficient in energy.

SEED MONEY from Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince has enabled the country’s Kalima Foundation to buy, translate, and distribute foreign books “to lift the country culturally” says Publishing News. They plan to translate 500 books into Arabic within the next two or three years. “It is time that someone takes a brave step into the Arab world and gives them what they deserve” says Kalima’s Karim Nagy. (Karima means word.)

THERE WILL SOON be only a handful of ports in the world large enough to handle the oversized new tankers known as Panamax. Some are already capable of carrying 11,000 20-ft containers (a train carrying that load would be 44 miles long) and shipping companies are talking of cutting their costs further by building tankers up to 70% bigger.

INDIA’S TOP BUSINESS GROUP, the Reliance company with 49 stores, will join with that country’s biggest private phone service, Bharti Enterprises, to compete for customers in a big way by opening 4,000 stores in the next four years. “We will be formidable competition (to WalMart) in India” promises Reliance Retail’s operations chief Raghu Pillai. The retail battle, aimed at the country’s increasingly affluent middle class of 300 million shoppers, has been described by observers as “the great India retail gold rush.”

FOR BROOKLYN NATIVE Rudy Giuliani and enthusiastic transplant Hillary Clinton, the question is this: Is their association with New York something to brag about in campaign stops across the country or will they choose to campaign simply as rootless national figures, products of a generic political/celebrity culture…? they should run on the strength of New York rather than running away from New York — editorial in The New York Observer.

THE INCREASING AVAILABILITY of information on the internet is prompting donors to charities to ask more questions on how their money is being spent according to CFO magazine. “There’s almost no oversight, the sector is regulated as if it were a bunch of kids selling lemonade” comments Trent Stamp, president of Charity Navigator, an online watchdog. The sums are huge: Americans are said to have given $260 billion to one million charities in 2005, but in many cases the percentage spent on overhead and fund-raising seems disproportionate and raises questions. Patrick Rooney, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy, suggests that many charities “are deliberately manipulating the numbers.”

THE WIDE DISTRIBUTION in Europe of a book, The Atlas of Creation, demonstrates that Muslims also are not immune to whacky theories.  The 800-page, colorfully illustrated Islam text is by Harun Yahya, a Turkish creationist, who argues that Darwin’s theory of evolution “is responsible for all the evil in the world, including international terrorism.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: Being rude to waiters is the most likely way to ensure no second date takes place according to a survey by the match-making service Just Lunch, which rates it even ahead of blowing one’s nose at the table…. “…We’re all seeking that special person who is right for us” says Andrew Boyd “But if you’ve been through enough relationships, you begin to suspect that there’s no right person, just different flavors of wrong”…. Aging customers at Kaiser’s Senioren Supermarket in Berlin can sit down in its trolleys, which are equipped with magnifying glasses as they shop at the talking fruit and veggie stands…. Britain’s biggest liquor company, Diageo, plans to build in Scotland its first major malt whisky distillery in 100 years “to meet soaring demand from Indian and Chinese consumers…” Humor is the shortest distance between two points said Victor Borge…. It is illegal to lasso a fish in Tennessee or to get one drunk in Oklahoma…. A Slovenian named Marin Strel, 52, is attempting to swim the entire length (3,900 miles) of the Amazon River…. Xerox is developing a re-usable paper on which markings disappear after 24 hours…. His voice deepening with age, the most prominent of The Three Tenors, Placido Domingo, 66, has become a baritone…. An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics — Plutarch (46-120AD)