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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: May 29, 2010

John Wilcock

THE FIRST SUCCESSFUL business book is still selling hundreds of thousands of copies a year and recently became a big hit as an iPhone app. It will be republished next year to mark its 75th anniversary. Maybe the success of How to Win Friends and Influence People is due to its popularity among all the folk (30m so far) who didn’t buy it just for business but because they thought it could improve their lives. “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it” and ”Let the other person do a great deal of the talking” are a couple of the 30 principles laid out by author Dale Carnegie who first developed them while teaching a class at the Harlem YMCA. The book, which has been translated into 47 languages, became the foundation stone of what Fortune describes as “a self-improvement empire” — Dale Carnegie Training, whose eight million graduates include Warren Buffett, Frank Perdue, andLee Iacocca. “I’ve never claimed to have a new idea,” Carnegie (who died in 1955) once explained. “Of course, I deal with the obvious. I present, reiterate, and glorify the obvious because the obvious is what people need to be told.”

THE REASON WHY it’s so hard to get a handle on simplifying the tax code, says the Economist, is that there are too many contradictory loopholes, each representing a favor to some different group. “A typical loophole has passionate defenders but no opponents,” explains the mag. “Those who benefit from it, benefit a lot. Those who would gain from its repeal (ie taxpayers in general) have never heard of it. And so the mess gets messier.”

THE LATEST DAREDEVIL to announce a death-defying stunt is Felix Baumgartner who plans to jump out of a balloon 22 miles above the earth and float not-so-gently to the ground. His project is being guided by U.S. test pilot Joe Kittinger who made a similar drop from 102,800 feet half a century ago. Baumgartner, 41, is aiming at a new record of 120,000 feet. This kind of stunt offers helpful research for future astronauts and space tourists. In the first 30 seconds of his jump, Baumgartner will break the sound barrier at 690mph before being slowed down to about 120mph by denser air.  A special parachute will slow any potential spin and a regular chute will kick in at 5,000 feet carrying him as far as 150 miles from his starting point.  Austrian-born, he holds the record for the highest parachute dive from a building (the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) and in 2007 became the first person to jump 1,280 ft from the then-tallest completed building in the world in Taiwan.

A BIODEGRADABLE PEN that will decompose in soil or water after its useful life is over is the first of a raft of products made from plastic by a Cambridge, MA company.  Metabolix has genetically engineered a microbe that eats sugar from corn to generate a new molecule. Next, the company plans to phase out the corn and use nonfood material such as switchgrass which grows in profusion on the prairie.

DESCRIBED AS THE INVENTOR of one of this century’s most famous flops, Dean Kamen is said to have spent more than $100m to commercialize the Segway. But although it proved too expensive and too impractical for the mass market says Fortune, it hasn’t cured Kamen, 59, of his risk-taking. More than 300 engineers are employed at his invention factory, DEKA Research in Manchester. N.H., among them an arm “that revolutionizes artificial limbs,” an engine that makes electricity from cow dung and grass clippings,  and a vapor compression water distiller that can turn sludge into drinkable water. “I need those day jobs to fund my fantasies supplying clean water and power to the world,” he told the magazine.

UPSCALE SHOPPING MALLS, once so choosy, are finding that being less exclusive can be very helpful in these parlous times. A tattoo parlor, for example, is the newest tenant of Tampa’s ritzy Westfield Brandon Mall which has found that it generates a good deal of foot traffic. “A tattoo can also take up to a couple of hours and require multiple visits,” says Stores magazine, “which keeps folks at — and coming back to — the mall.”

TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS after first opening in Charleston, IL, Jimmy John’s Sandwich Shops launched its 1,000th outlet in Beaverton, OR. But its main item (says Stores magazine) goes by many different names in different regions: sub, torpedo, grinder hoagie, wedge, or blimp.

THE COUNTRY OF MICRONESIA is suing a power station in the Czech Republic — 8,000 miles away — citing the international law principle of transboundary harm, applying it for the first time to climate change. “We would like to make it a precedent,” declares environmental lawyer Jim Nezhyba, expressing hopes that it will encourage similar challenges and result with (says Mother Jones) “industries bracing for a tide of climate lawsuits.” Another one now in the works is the Inupiat Native American community of Kivalina, Alaska, suing a score of oil and utility companies whose carbon emissions, they claim, are helping to melt the ice on which the community sits. The subject will be a hot topic when 65 world leaders meet for environmental talks in Cancun in November.

WHAT LOOKED LIKE good fortune when a huge new source of oil was found beneath the sea off Rio de Janeiro is now causing major anxiety in Brazil’s capital as 27 state governors and 5,600 mayors are all fighting for the country’s oil wealth to be redistributed. Up to now the $4bn in annual oil revenues has accounted for 15% of Rio’s budget but a fairer redistribution would bring Rio a mere $130m which the city says would jeopardize the 2016 Olympic Games. “Oil is like a pretty woman on a dance floor full of men,” says Brazil president Lula da Silva vividly, “Everybody wants a go.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: As is so often the case, it was the governments (and not the citizens) of European countries that rammed through the use of the Euro to replace all those gorgeously decorative, multicolored bank notes. But we might yet see the day when the situation is reversed…..

Will the Euro become obsolete?

There should be a law mandating that any election in which less than 50% of the electorate votes, is automatically declared invalid….Never Enough by William Voegeli is the perfect title for a book about greedy Republicans. But no! It’s a book about welfare. (Blaming your adversary for your own faults is known as the Nixon Defense)….. With a Bionic Power device strapped to the knee, a one-minute walk produces enough kinetic energy to power a cell phone or prosthetic limb…..“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,” wrote Edward Thomas…. Did you ever hear of swapping a movie star for a tattooed, trailer park slut?…..Even religion-inspired murders won’t delay the depiction of pictorial representations of Muhammad indefinitely…. …. So many Russian drivers mount flashing blue lights atop their cars to speed their way through traffic there’s a new law that prohibits it…. The infamous Blackwater company, kicked out of Iraq after its mercenaries murdered a bunch of civilians, is asking the Pentagon to give it another $1bn contract under its new name Xe….. … Newsmax estimates that the Mexican drug cartels control the trade in more than 200 U.S. cities….Employing more temps would surely be cheaper than spending millions on paying overtime…Top of the list of 1.3 million complaints to the Federal Trade Commission is identity theft (runner up: debt collection)….. Why are the “rights” of foreigners to break the law any business of the ACLU?….Placebos work best in treating depression, experts explain,  because “they offer hope”…..Factories making everything from Cuban-type cigars, popcorn and banjos, and visits to nut farms and gold mines are available on free tours in all 50 states (….Brazil’s Rio Archdiocese, which holds the copyright on the mountaintop Christ the Redeemer statue is suing Columbia Pictures for depicting its destruction in the movie 2012……A school on Tyneside in northern England tried starting lessons an hour later in the morning and reported “significant” improvements in math and English results…. “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” — Voltaire 1694-1778)