Archive for December, 2008

Israelis Say Strikes Against Hamas Will Continue

December 28, 2008
December 28, 2008

GAZA — Waves of Israeli airstrikes destroyed Hamas security facilities in Gaza on Saturday in a crushing response to the group’s rocket fire, killing more than 225 — the highest one-day toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in decades.

Israeli military officials said the airstrikes, which went on into the night, were the start of what could be days or even months of an effort to force Hamas to end its rocket barrages into southern Israel. The operation could include ground forces, a senior Israeli security official said.

Palestinian officials said that most of the dead were security officers for Hamas, including two senior commanders, and that at least 600 people had been wounded in the attacks.

After the initial airstrikes, dozens of rockets were fired into southern Israel, where an emergency was declared. Thousands of Israelis hurried into bomb shelters amid the hail of rockets, including some longer-range models that reached farther north than ever before. One man was killed in the town of Netivot, the first death from rocket fire since it intensified a week ago, and four were wounded.

A number of governments and international officials, including leaders of Russia, Egypt, the European Union and the United Nations, condemned Israel’s use of force and also called on Hamas to end the rocket fire. But in strong terms, the Bush administration blamed Hamas for the violence and demanded that it stop firing rockets.

A military operation had been forecast and demanded by Israeli officials for weeks, ever since a rocky cease-fire between Israel and Hamas fully collapsed a week ago, leading again to rocket attacks in large numbers against Israel and isolated Israeli operations here.

Still, there was a shocking quality to Saturday’s attacks, which began in broad daylight as police cadets were graduating, women were shopping at the outdoor market, and children were emerging from school.

The center of Gaza City was a scene of chaotic horror, with rubble everywhere, sirens wailing, and women shrieking as dozens of mutilated bodies were laid out on the pavement and in the lobby of Shifa Hospital so that family members could identify them. The dead included civilians, including several construction workers and at least two children in school uniforms.

By afternoon, shops were shuttered, funerals began and mourning tents were visible on nearly every major street of this densely populated city.

The leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, said in a statement that “Palestine has never witnessed an uglier massacre.” Later, in a televised speech, he vowed to fight Israel. “We say in all confidence that even if we are hung on the gallows or they make our blood flow in the streets or they tear our bodies apart, we will bow only before God and we will not abandon Palestine,” he said.

In Damascus, Syria, Hamas’s supreme leader, Khaled Meshal, said in an interview with Al Jazeera television that he was calling for a new Palestinian intifada against Israel, including the resumption of suicide attacks within Israel for the first time since 2005. Hamas, he said, had accepted “all the peaceful options, but without results.”

Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister and chairman of the Labor Party, said the military operation in Gaza would expand and deepen as necessary, adding, “There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and this is the time for fighting.”

“We wanted to attack military targets while the terrorists were inside the facilities and before Hamas was able to get its rockets out that were stored in some of the targets,” said a top Israeli security official, briefing a group of reporters by telephone on condition of anonymity.

“Right now, we have to hit Hamas hard to stop the launching,” he added. “I don’t see any other way for Hamas to change its behavior. Hamas is not just a terrorist organization. It actually rules Gaza and is well supported by Iran with some of its leadership in Syria.”

Hamas had in recent weeks let it be known that it doubted Israel would engage in a major military undertaking because of its coming elections. But in some ways the elections have made it impossible for officials like Mr. Barak not to react, because the public has grown anxious and angry over the rocket fire, which while causing no recent deaths and few injuries is deeply disturbing for those living near Gaza.

Israeli officials said that anyone linked to the Hamas security structure or government was fair game because Hamas was a terrorist group that sought Israel’s destruction. But with work here increasingly scarce because of an international embargo on Hamas, young men are tempted by the steady work of the police force without necessarily fully accepting the Hamas ideology. One of the biggest tolls on Saturday was at a police cadet graduation ceremony in which 15 people were killed.

Spokesmen for Hamas officials, who have mostly gone underground, called on militants to seek revenge and fight to the last drop of blood. Several compared what was happening to the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, when Israel reacted to the capture and killing of soldiers along its northern border with air raids, followed by a ground attack. Hezbollah is widely viewed as having withstood those assaults and emerged much stronger politically.

The Arab League initially called an emergency meeting for Sunday in Cairo with all the foreign ministers from the member states, but later postponed it to Wednesday to give ministers time to respond.

Governments that dislike Hamas, like Egypt’s, Jordan’s and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, are in a delicate position. They blame Hamas for having taken over Gaza by force 18 months ago in the aftermath of its election victory in the Palestinian Parliament, and they oppose its rocket fire on Israeli towns and communities.

But the sight of scores of Palestinians killed by Israeli warplanes outraged their citizens, and anti-Israel demonstrations broke out across the region.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority angrily condemned the Israeli airstrikes. Egypt, worried about possible efforts by Palestinians to enter the country, has set up machine guns along the Gaza border. But on Saturday it temporarily opened the Rafah border crossing in order to allow the wounded to be brought to Egyptian hospitals.

In the West Bank and in some Arab parts of Jerusalem and Israel, Palestinians threw stones, causing some injuries.

Hamas is officially committed to Israel’s destruction, and after it took over Gaza in 2007, it said it would not recognize Israel, honor previous Palestinian Authority commitments to it or end its violence against Israelis.

Israel, backed by the United States, Europe, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, has sought to isolate Hamas by squeezing Gaza economically, a policy that human rights groups condemn as collective punishment. Israel and Egypt, which control routes into and out of Gaza, have blocked nearly all but humanitarian aid from going in.

The result has been the near death of the Gazan economy. While enough food has gone in to avoid starvation, the level of suffering is very high and getting worse each week, especially in recent weeks as Israel closed the routes entirely for about 10 days in reaction to daily rocket fire.

Opening the routes to commerce was Hamas’s main goal in its cease-fire with Israel, just as ending the rocket fire was Israel’s central aim. But while rocket fire did go down drastically in the fall to 15 to 20 a month from hundreds a month, Israel said it would not permit trade to begin again because the rocket fire had not completely stopped and because Hamas continued to smuggle weapons from Egypt through desert tunnels. Hamas said this was a violation of the agreement, a sign of Israel’s real intentions and cause for further rocket fire. On Wednesday, some 70 rockets hit Israel over 24 hours, in a distinct increase in intensity.

The United Nations Security Council met late Saturday night to discuss the situation.

Envoys of the 15-nation council were discussing what diplomats said was a Russian-drafted statement calling for a halt to Israeli military operations in Gaza as well as a halt to rocket attacks upon Israel, Reuters reported.

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mosque destroyed

December 28, 2008

Two Palestinians were killed when a mosque was bombed in Gaza City, Hamas officials and medics said.

S.U.V. Requiem

December 24, 2008
December 24, 2008

Nearly the End of the Line for S.U.V.’s

JANESVILLE, Wis. — Even a federal bailout could not save three of the last remaining plants in the United States still making sport utility vehicles.

Reeling from its financial problems and a collapsing S.U.V. market, General Motors on Tuesday closed its factories in this city and in Moraine, Ohio, marking the passing of an era when big S.U.V.’s ruled the road. The moves followed the shutdown last Friday of Chrysler’s factory in Newark, Del., which produced full-size S.U.V.’s.

The last Chevrolet Tahoe rolled off the line here in Janesville shortly after 7 a.m. in the 90-year-old plant, which had built more than 3.7 million big S.U.V.’s since the early 1990s.

Most of the plant’s 1,100 remaining workers were not scheduled to work the final day, but many showed up for an emotional closing ceremony. Dan Doubleday, who had 22 years on the job, broke down in the plant’s snowy parking lot afterward.

“I was a fork lift driver,” he said, glancing at his watch through welling tears. “Until about seven minutes ago.”

At the Mocha Moment coffee shop around the corner, two co-workers, Michael Berberich and Lisa Gonzalez, exchanged Christmas presents just as they had most years since they were both hired in 1986.

“For a while we had it made,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “I just wish it would have lasted.”

The fate of the Janesville, Moraine, and Newark plants was sealed this spring, when rising gas prices suddenly made S.U.V.’s unpopular, and long before President Bush approved $17.4 billion in emergency loans last week to keep G.M. and Chrysler out of bankruptcy.

While the overall new vehicle market has dropped 16 percent so far this year, sales of big S.U.V.’s have plummeted 40 percent.

With consumers shifting rapidly to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, G.M. no longer needed to produce big S.U.V.’s in Janesville as well as in a plant in Texas.

Still, some Janesville workers felt G.M. broke a pledge in its 2007 contract with the United Automobile Workers to keep the factory running.

“We didn’t deserve this,” said John Dohner Jr., shop chairman at U.A.W. Local 95. “We’ve all put a lot of hard work into trying to secure a future here.”

Shrinking market shares have forced G.M., Chrysler and the Ford Motor Company to close more than a dozen assembly plants and shed tens of thousands of workers in recent years. The moves have devastated communities from Georgia to New Jersey and from Michigan to Oklahoma.

Even so, G.M. and Chrysler are likely to close more manufacturing facilities as they overhaul their operations to meet conditions of the federal loans.

“The companies are moving very fast now to close plants, but it may be too little, too late,” said John Casesa, a principal in the Casesa Shapiro Group, a consulting firm. “They’re doing now what they should have done 15 or 20 years ago.”

G.M.’s Moraine plant was the last to build the midsize Chevrolet Blazers and GMC Envoys that were once among the best-selling vehicles in the country.

The Janesville factory built three of the biggest and most profitable vehicles in G.M.’s lineup, the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban and GMC Yukon. The Chrysler plant in Newark also made big S.U.V.’s — the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen.

Their closings leave the Big Three with only one factory each still devoted to making traditional big S.U.V.’s — Ford in Kentucky, G.M. in Texas, and Chrysler in Detroit.

The Janesville plant once employed more than 5,000 workers and turned out 20,000 Tahoes, Yukons and Suburbans each month. With its closing, residents worried about the future of this city of 64,000 people, about 75 miles southwest of Milwaukee.

“Janesville will lose a lot,” said Patti Homan, as she finished a strawberry-topped waffle at the nearby Eagle Inn restaurant. “I expect my electricity to go up, water rates to go up, property taxes to go up, and the value of my home to go down.”

Ms. Homan worked in the plant for 23 years, and her father, brother and husband all retired from the factory. “It’s generation after generation for so many families here,” she said.

The empty feelings in Janesville were echoed in Moraine, a suburb of Dayton and last week at the Chrysler plant in Newark.

More than 1,000 workers were laid off at the Moraine plant. Under terms of the U.A.W. contract for all its members, they and the workers in Janesville and Newark will collect unemployment checks and payments from G.M. that together equal about 80 percent of their take-home pay.

But those payments will only last about a year. And with the U.A.W. prepared to suspend its “jobs bank” program as a condition of the federal loans, there will be no safety net after that.

Some workers will have an opportunity to transfer to other plants. But with the industry contracting so quickly, there is little job security in making a move.

“I can’t risk transferring,” said David Williams, one of the remaining 1,100 workers at the Newark plant when it closed. “I don’t want to go 1,200 miles away to get laid off again.”

Mr. Williams installed a sunroof on the last Dodge Durango to come down the assembly line in Newark. Now he plans to take massage-therapy classes and pursue a new career far from the factory floor.

“Enough with the concrete,” he said. “It’s time for some carpet and climate control.”

On the last day for the Newark plant, 84-year-old Woody Bevans unlocked the weight room at the U.A.W. union hall and began brewing coffee for a handful of retirees who passed the time there.

A Texan who started work at the plant when it opened in 1952, Mr. Bevans recalled how the factory was first used to build tanks for the Korean War. He retired in 1983, but thought the plant would go on forever.

“We had hope right up until the last,” Mr. Bevans said. “We’re really going to feel it when it shuts down. There’s a big chain reaction, believe me.”

The University of Delaware is negotiating with Chrysler to buy the plant and redevelop the 270-acre site with academic buildings and a technology park.

After the plant closed, one of the workers, Merle Black, drove directly to a Delaware Department of Labor office and registered for job openings. He is hoping to become a heavy equipment operator, and possibly be involved in the demolition of the factory where he used to install airbag parts.

“If I can get in there to help take it apart, I don’t mind,” Mr. Black said. “That’s where I spent the last 19 years. That’s what I know.”

The closing of an auto plant draws a crowd, with some people somber and nostalgic and others defiant and energized.

Outside the Janesville plant on Tuesday, a few workers posed for pictures in front of the building while others said their goodbyes as they loaded gear in their snow-covered S.U.V.’s

One man had two small children with him on the last day. Another man wearing an orange ski mask waved a large American flag as departing workers drove by.

Many of the workers trudged over to a one-story, cinder-block building on the grounds of the factory, a bar called the Zoxx 411 Club. A sign said “customers only” and forbade reporters and media from entering.

Outside, a cluster of reporters, including a documentary film crew from Japan, tried to interview workers about the last days of the S.U.V. plant.

“It’s been a good ride, man,” said Frank Hereford, a body shop worker, as he left the plant with a microwave oven that heated up countless lunches during many of his 38 years with G.M. “Good people worked down here.”

A rubbish life for LA marathon recycler

December 23, 2008

LOS ANGELES (AFP) – Dave Chameides has spent almost an entire year living a life full of utter garbage, and hoping he can inspire other Americans to do the same.

The Los Angeles-based cameraman has lived in his comfortable Hollywood home without throwing away a single piece of trash, from wine bottles to chewing gum and pizza boxes.

Instead the 39-year-old Chameides — nicknamed “Sustainable Dave” — recycles his garbage or else stores it in his basement. He says he wants to show that it is possible to dramatically reduce his family’s consumption habits.

And he can show astounding results. Rather than the 1,600 pounds of trash the average American family produces each year, Chameides, his wife and two daughters have amassed only 32 pounds over the last 12 months.

“If I were the average American, this entire basement would be filled with plastic water bottles,” said Chameides, who chronicles his campaign with an Internet blog (http://365daysoftrash.blogspot.com).

Chameides has shunned bottled water in favor of filtered tap water — except when on holiday in Mexico, but even those water bottles were brought back to his home, compacted and stored with other trash.

His war on packaging also extends to the family groceries. Rice and pulses are bought by the kilo and placed in containers, while fresh fruit and vegetables are purchased at a weekly neighborhood farmers’ market.

In fact, groceries was one of the easiest areas to eliminate packaging, Chameides said.

“The food is not so bad, but with DVDs, kids toys and so on, it’s packaging you don’t want, and it’s frustrating,” he told AFP. “What you don’t realize is that you’re paying for it, and pay for it again to dispose of it.”

“So I buy rice and beans in bulk, there’s no packaging. I pay less, it just makes sense. People need to wake up and say, this is not OK.”

Ironically, even Chameides’s rubbish will not go to waste. In January, his refuse will be sent to the Trash Museum of Connecticut to be exhibited.

Meanwhile, organic waste, such as banana skins and egg shells, is minced up by worms and used as compost. “Any kind of organic food and paper, except meat and fish. It’s a really amazingly efficient system,” Chameides enthuses.

His southern California home is fitted with solar panels while his car runs on used cooking oil. However, he insists that even if you don’t follow his example to the letter, “sustainable living” can be achieved without huge sacrifices to your quality of life.

“I’m eating fresher food, I’m saving money, helping the local economy, supporting farmers instead of corporations. For me that’s worth it. It’s just thinking about doing the right thing,” he says.

“It’s just little steps. I’m not living in a cave. People think that the US quality of life should be living in a house with lights on all the time. We live a pretty decent life, by many people’s standards we live a phenomenal life.”

Even wrapping paper for Christmas gifts presents an opportunity to recycle.

“If we wrap something, it would be either in comics or something useful, reusable,” he says.

Cars for all on earth

December 23, 2008

Growth at any cost.

Companies want more people to buy more cars than they did last year. That’s growth. The ultimate end would be to have every person on earth driving his own car.

Why not settle for just flat sales? Along the way, this endless growth would destroy the earth and humanity – all for the sake of profit?

That’s why it is good that car companies would go bankrupt and people would buy less cars. Use their cars until they fall apart. Walk to lose weight, avoid car accidents, prevent diabetes, cancer and heart disease and bankrupt the oil producing countries.

Do more with less. Consume just enough energy to produce food, and forget about useless luxuries. This car crisis is good. Hope they all go bankrupt and the world will be cleaner.

Saving – Your Defense Against a Financial Crisis

December 19, 2008

October 20, 2008

One of the upsides of the current upheaval in the global financial system is that people are more careful about spending their money. Rightly so. With many people facing a clear and present danger of losing their jobs, the smartest move would be to stretch one’s money as much as possible. Because you’ll never know if tomorrow you will still have a job.

In the US and other western countries, it is inevitable that a number of big and small businesses will go pfffttt and close shop due to the financial crisis, displacing thousands of workers. Many companies will also downsize their operations to ensure their long-term survival in the face of a slowing economy which will jack up the number of jobless people. That is why our OFWs are worried sick about their jobs. The government, through DOLE and the DFA, has in fact, started monitoring job losses of Filipinos worldwide.

In Singapore, the employers of some of our domestic helpers are reportedly becoming more irritable because of their investment losses. If employers of our DHs in the Middle East, Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong were hit badly by the global financial storm they may no longer be able to afford the services of domestic helpers and we could be seeing a steady stream of distressed OFWs coming home to an uncertain future. Anxieties about job security are not just confined to OFWs. Even local employees have reason to worry about their jobs, especially those in companies which are largely dependent on foreign markets like the export industry and BPOs.

You really shouldn’t wait for a crisis to happen before you start to worry about your financial situation. Always remember that a lot of good things don’t last. Sooner or later the good times will end. You may be earning well now but there’s no guarantee that 5 or 10 years hence you will still be on easy street. You should be prepared all the time. Save as if there’s always a financial crisis looming in the horizon. Save as if your income would stop flowing anytime soon. With this kind of attitude towards saving you will be able to accumulate sufficient monetary resources that can tide you over when the next economic turmoil hits. Let me share with you a number of strategies to help you save and build your defense against a financial crisis.

Create a spending plan. It’s a must especially when income is tight. The spending plan or budget helps you control and manage your money because it tells you where each peso should go. It helps you minimize, if not eliminate, unnecessary expenses. Remember to include in your spending plan a budget for your regular savings, which ideally should be about 20% of your net income. Don’t waste your time by creating a spending plan that you have no intention of using.

Spend your money wisely. In good or bad times, you should make it a habit to buy only things that are necessary. If you have to purchase something “nice-to-have” but unimportant do it occasionally. And save for it instead of conveniently charging it to your credit card. Get rid of unnecessary expenses like smoking, heavy drinking and frequent “gimiks.” You can also reduce your expenses further if you give up your love affair with signature wear and expensive cappuccino. During tough times, these things should be the first to go. Now is a good time to evaluate your lifestyle. If your way of life is causing you financial pains, why continue with it? Shift to a more modest lifestyle; one that is financially low maintenance.

Freeze your credit cards. And I mean this literally. I first heard about this tip from best-selling author Efren Cruz. To limit your credit card use, submerge it in a glass of water then put inside your ref to freeze. (Don’t do this for cards with electronic chips because it will short circuit and get damaged.) Frozen credit cards will reduce your expenses because studies show that you will spend 25-30% less if you use cash exclusively. Thaw your frozen credit card only when you really have to use it.

If you are like the lady who I recently heard brag about her six credit cards, get a pair of scissors and cut up your cards. Leave just one or two; that’s all you need. Too many cards will just temp you into spending more than you can afford.

Be a hunter. You should make every peso count and always try to get the best value for your money. Be an expert at stretching your income. Hunt for the best bargains (without compromising quality) so you can buy more for less. This is the mark of a true smart saver. Remember that expensive doesn’t always mean good quality.

Here are some other things you can do to cut down your expenses and save more money.

1. Be contented with what you have; envy is often expensive.

2. Do not gamble; you probably have a bigger chance of getting hit by lighting than hitting the jackpot.

3. Take public transport; you will be helping the environment while helping your pocket.

4. Bring lunch to work; you can save more than 50% and get to enjoy home-cooked food daily.

5. Don’t be a techno gadget freak; some gadgets cost a lot and lose value soon after you buy it.

6. Spend more time at home; you will spend less.

Culture of Corruption

December 17, 2008

By Andrew Marshall, Asia Political Risk Correspondent

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – To understand the challenge faced by emerging southeast Asian economies struggling to shake off a corrosive culture of corruption, you can start by counting the parking tickets issued to foreign diplomats in Manhattan.

The league table of the worst parking offenders in New York embassies tells the same story as other methods economists have used to gauge countries’ propensity for corruption — many Asian nations fare very poorly in upholding the rule of law.

And the fact national corruption patterns persist even among diplomats in a foreign city suggests that a solution requires more than just better law enforcement — it needs fundamental institutional reform and a wholesale change in attitudes.

“You cannot fight corruption just by fighting corruption,” said Daniel Kaufmann, who spearheaded the World Bank’s efforts to improve the study of governance and the rule of law, and who estimates that $1 trillion of bribes are paid every year.

Evidence showed there was little to be gained from “yet another anti-corruption campaign, the creation of more commissions and ethics agencies, and the incessant drafting of new laws, decrees, and codes of conduct,” he said, adding that “fundamental and systemic governance reforms” were needed instead.

Economists who specialize in governance say combating corruption is not just a moral imperative — it is essential for promoting long-term economic growth and investment.

That means economies like Singapore and Hong Kong which have successfully sought to crack down on corruption have received real economic benefits in return. And southeast Asia’s laggards have driven investors away because of their poor reputation.

“International capital flows are strongly affected by corruption,” said Johann Graf Lambsdorff, professor at the University of Passau and creator of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). “Capital flows into countries that have a reputation of limiting corruption.”

SINGAPORE TO MYANMAR: WORLDS APART

There is no objective way of measuring corruption. Most methods of ranking countries rely on tracking perceptions, and two of the most widely followed — Kaufmann’s World Governance Indicators for the World Bank, and Transparency International’s CPI — aggregate several surveys to produce a composite rating.

They paint a remarkably consistent picture of southeast Asia.

Singapore is the clear leader in the region according to all surveys. At the opposite end of the scale, Myanmar is among the world’s most corrupt countries — of 180 nations ranked by Transparency International, only Somalia rates worse.

Of the emerging economies that most interest investors, Malaysia has a clear advantage — the World Bank indicators gave it a 2007 score of 62.3, above Thailand on 44.0, Vietnam on 28.0, Indonesia on 27.1 and the Philippines on 22.2. Transparency International’s CPI ranks the countries in the same order.

Economists say a host of data supports the theory there is a “development dividend” for countries that tackle corruption.

“We estimate that a country that improves its governance from a relatively low level to an average level could almost triple the income per capita of its population in the long term, and similarly reduce infant mortality and illiteracy,” Kaufmann said.

Lambsdorff said there was convincing evidence that not only foreign direct investment but also portfolio investment was affected by corruption, with studies showing that stock markets outperformed in countries that successfully reduced corruption.

“International investors are more confident of a country, or consider the country to be less risky so don’t seek such a risk premium to invest in a country,” he said.

Frugality

December 14, 2008
December 7, 2008

Q. With the country in a recession, your 401(k) losing money and companies laying off workers left and right, you know it would be a good idea to cut back on your spending while you’re at work. What are some ways to do this?

A. Start with the money you spend on food and drink. Avoid impulsive spending on food and other items by leaving credit cards at home and bringing only cash with you to work. Decide what you can spend while at work during the week and put that amount into an envelope, said Dayana Yochim, a personal finance expert with the Motley Fool, the financial advice Web site.

“This brings a mindfulness to spending — it’s not $5 here, $5 there,” she said.

Bringing lunch to work, even two or three times a week, cuts down on food costs, said Susan M. Cooper, a certified financial planner and manager of the New York metro branch office of AXA Advisors. A survey conducted in October by ConAgra Foods showed that workers spent an average of $6.60 a day buying lunch.

Try bringing breakfast foods to work, too, like dry cereal and milk or instant oatmeal, and you won’t be tempted to buy an expensive pastry or muffin on the way into the office, she said.

Consider starting a snack pool, by asking co-workers if they want to donate a snack like granola bars or crackers to share with the group, said Beth Pinsker Gladstone, editor of WalletPop.com, a personal finance advice site.

And try eliminating both your morning and afternoon latte. Bring in a French press — which you can get for under $20 — and make your own rich cup of coffee whenever you want, Ms. Cooper suggested.

“If you skip the twice-daily coffee you can save $30 a week,” she said. “That’s $120 a month and about $1,500 a year.”

Q. What about your gym membership, which is pricey but enables you to work out at lunch or in the early morning, often the only free time you have? If you give that up, when will you exercise?

A. For some people, a gym membership is a vital long-term investment in their health. But if you feel you need to save money by forgoing it, try waking up earlier and going for a walk or a run before you leave for work, or squeezing in a walk at lunch. If you want more intensity, add wrist or ankle weights and stop to jump rope.

This would not be appropriate for every office, but Ms. Pinsker Gladstone says she exercises while she sits at her desk by using an exercise ball instead of a chair. “Sitting on it requires that you don’t slouch, which is great for your back and works your abdominal muscles all day long,” she said.

Q. How can you dress fashionably at work without spending a fortune on new clothes?

A. Shop at second-hand clothing and upscale consignment stores, suggested Rachel C. Weingarten, president of GTK Marketing Group in New York and author of “Career and Corporate Cool.”

For women, she suggested having “a few key separates: pants, a jacket, a couple of suits and blouses, and dress them up with a variety of accessories like brooches, necklaces and scarves. Look at fashion magazines and find similar items at discount stores.”

Men can invest in a couple of sport coats and use them again and again with different shirts and slacks, preferably all machine — or hand — washable, Ms. Pinsker Gladstone said.

Consider having a clothing swap party, she added, where you can gain clothes while getting rid of things you don’t wear anymore. You can also refurbish suits and shirts by having cuffs repaired, buttons replaced and hemlines adjusted. Extend the life of shoes by repairing the soles.

Q. Should you hold off updating cellphones, P.D.A.’s and computers?

A. While you don’t want to look technologically outdated, many people have jumped off the compulsive-technology-upgrade wagon, Ms. Weingarten said. “If you really need a new computer, there is a whole generation of computers now that are under $500, like Asus or the MSI Wind Netbook,” she said. Comparison-shop at sites like dealnews.com, NexTag, and Shop.com, and always search for discounts.

Q. Is there a way to rejigger your employment or health benefits to save money?

A. This is the time of year when employees make their benefits enrollment decisions. Make sure you have a flexible spending account that lets you use pretax income to pay for out-of-pocket medical and health expenses.

“This is income that hasn’t been taxed, so it’s essentially a 25 percent savings on everything you purchase, and it also reduces your taxable income,” Ms. Yochim said.

If you consistently receive tax refunds, give yourself a raise by updating your W-4 form and adjusting your withholding information. Go to IRS.gov and use the site’s withholding calculator to figure out the number of exemptions you should be taking; increasing that number will bolster your take-home pay, Ms. Yochim said.

Increasing your health care deductible will also pad your paycheck. Switching from a $250 to a $500 deductible, for example, can significantly lower your monthly health insurance premium, Ms. Cooper said.

Nestor Sulpico April 24, 2008

December 8, 2008

Honest Filipino cabbie inspires, even after death

By Nestor P. Burgos Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: May 05, 2008

ILOILO CITY – Thrust into international fame four years ago, Nestor Sulpico then said: “I could not ask for more. And even if I die, I feel that I have become a role model for the younger generations.”The Filipino migrant, who was hailed as “New York’s most honest taxi driver,” was laid to rest on Saturday at the Iloilo Memorial Park in Jaro District with tributes coming from family and friends both here and in the Big Apple.

In July 2004, the unassuming cabbie made headlines and was even featured on the widely popular “Oprah” television show after he returned $75,000 worth of black pearls left by a passenger in his taxi.

Sulpico, 51, died of cancer of the colon on April 24, four months after returning quietly to the Philippines and four months away from finishing his studies at the Phillips Beth Israel School of Nursing in New York.

Elder sister Eva Sulpico-Navarro said her brother remained “an inspiring example” of the values taught them by their parents. She recalled that Nestor had always explained his noble deed in NYC by simply saying: “I was raised to be honest.”

Eva said she hoped that her brother’s “guiding words” would somehow touch many others, “especially [those] in public service.”

Sulpico’s friends and classmates at Phillips Beth sent flowers and words of comfort to the grieving family.

In an e-mail to the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of INQUIRER.net), Luanne Kwon, one of Sulpico’s closest friends at the school, said:

“We are in a highly competitive nursing program, and tensions always run high. But Nestor was one of the few who could lighten up any situation. He could make you laugh at a drop of a hat, and he was wise when you least expected it.”

Humble hero

His fame never went to his head, Kwon noted. “Nestor was so humble about being a hero. He didn’t broadcast it for everyone to know.

“He was given a special certificate by [New York City] Mayor Michael Bloomberg and even guest-starred on Oprah-that doesn’t happen to just anyone! But Nestor was so low-key about it. I think he thought of himself as just an ordinary guy who did the right thing.”

For another classmate, Mario Alvarado, “[Nestor] may not have been the youngest in school but he had a young-at-heart way of living his life.”

“Nestor in my eyes was a young man with the experiences, ethics and caring of an adult we can all look up to. He will be missed and will be remembered for a lifetime,” Alvarado said.

Sulpico enrolled in the nursing school shortly after gaining fame for his honesty. He received a scholarship but continued to drive a taxi courtesy of a franchise given to him by Mayor Bloomberg.

Known for being quite secretive, Sulpico apparently kept his affliction from most of his family, friends and classmates. Eva said only their 88-year-old mother Elena was aware of the gravity of his condition.

“He always kept silent about his problems because he didn’t want to be a bother to anyone,” Eva said.

Childhood friend Larry Ang said Sulpico had always given him a call from the United States to announce his homecoming. But this time around, Ang said, he and their other friends were unaware that Nestor arrived in December last year and were therefore shocked to learn about his death.

Another close buddy, Jing Espinosa, said he later found out that Sulpico had asked his family not to tell his friends about his return.

Separated from his wife, Sulpico had plans to take his 20-year-old daughter Angel with him to the United States once he became a nurse, the Inquirer learned.

“He knew the seriousness of his condition and he came home to die beside his family and especially his daughter,” Ang said.

“He always talked and worried about his daughter and wanted a bright future for her.”

Kwon said that just before Sulpico went home, the latter was behaving differently but those close to him could not figure out why.

“To know that he was burdened by the knowledge that he had cancer, and that he kept it to himself, telling no one, deeply saddens me to the core,” Kwon further wrote, adding:

“I don’t care what anyone says, he was not ready to go. It wasn’t his time to go, period.

“We studied a lot together, and I know how damn hard he worked. Being a nurse was his dream. So, I can’t be consoled by telling myself he’s in a better place, because he will never see the achievement of all his hard work.”

Leganes native

Sulpico’s family originally hailed from Cagamutan village in Leganes town, 11 kilometers north of Iloilo City. His late father Loreto Sr. was a former municipal councilor.

The sixth of seven siblings, Nestor finished his elementary education at the Cagamutan Elementary School in Leganes and his high school at the Central Philippine University.

He took up Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, and later transferred to the Western Institute of Technology in Iloilo City where he earned a degree in business administration.

He left for the United States in 1990, and initially took on various contractual jobs from installing computer networks to hauling boxes at United Parcel Service.

Sulpico had barely logged in a month driving an NYC taxicab when fate took him on an unexpected ride: On July 15, 2004, he found a backpack containing black pearls left in the vehicle by hedge-fund manager Lawrence Policastro.

Integrity award

The driver was able to contact Policastro on the mobile phone that was also found in the backpack.

In deep gratitude, the business executive raised at least $5,000 to help the Filipino driver finish his nursing studies. Mayor Bloomberg also gave Sulpico an “integrity award” and a symbolic key to the city.

In August 2004, Sulpico returned to a hero’s welcome in Iloilo. The Senate passed a resolution commending his honesty, while Malacañang awarded him P100,000 in cash and a citation from President Macapagal-Arroyo.

In an interview then, Sulpico said returning the pearls was one of the easiest decisions he had ever made in his life. “I believe that honesty is the most important virtue which serves as a foundation of all other virtues.”

Sulpico admitted, though, that he entertained thoughts of how his life could easily change had he kept the precious find to himself, considering that he started out in New York “roaming [the city], shivering in the snow, desperately looking for a job.”

In seeing her beloved son buried on Saturday, Elena was certain Nestor had no regrets whatsoever.

“He lived and died with the virtues that I taught them since they were children. Nothing changed him even after he became famous,” Elena said.

In Hard Times, Is Best Buy’s Best Good Enough?

December 7, 2008
December 7, 2008

AMY ADONIZ, general manager at the Best Buy flagship store, knows what her staff wants for Christmas: a case of Red Bull.

Two weeks before Black Friday, Ms. Adoniz gave in to employees’ requests and had a Red Bull vending machine installed at the store, at 62nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Many in the sales staff of 140 are drama students, opera singers and actors who may run themselves ragged selling electronics by day and performing at night. To keep them from getting hungry and cranky over the long Thanksgiving weekend, Ms. Adoniz let them wear slippers and Uggs boots to work, and had food delivered three times a day.

Employees aren’t the only ones being tended to this shopping season. To lure customers, Ms. Adoniz waits for — and on — their dogs. “We have a doggie water bowl with filtered water, and treats for them as well,” she says.

With unemployment rising sharply, and consumer spending plummeting, Best Buy managers are bending over backward to attract shoppers and are encouraged to put their personal stamp on the stores. For Ms. Adoniz, that means stoking employees with caffeine and carbohydrates and catering to customers’ pets.

It’s an extraordinarily tough time for retailers. “November is shaping up to be the worst month in retail since I’ve been here 30 years,” says Edward Schmults, C.E.O. of FAO Schwarz, the toy chain. “Now I know how that little kid felt who misbehaved all year and then wondered if Santa was going to show up in December.”

Next year could be even worse. Fitch Ratings forecasts that the United States economy will contract 1.2 percent in 2009, with consumer spending falling 1.6 percent. “The impact on retailers is almost tragic as the economy adjusts,” Mr. Schmults says.

And Best Buy, to limit the damage, is not just cutting prices. It is trimming inventory and advertising, promoting higher-margin, private-label lines and pushing exclusive products, like the Blue Label series of notebook computers made for Best Buy by Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba. It’s also adding new services and products that specifically aim at women.

If the stock market and consumer spending hadn’t plunged so precipitously, Best Buy, the nation’s biggest electronics retailer, with $44 billion in annual revenue, might not have had to bother stocking up on delectables for dogs. The chain’s chief rival, Circuit City, recently filed for bankruptcy protection and is closing 155 stores. Tweeter, a high-end rival, shut down this week, and Sharper Image’s stores, which sold more exotic electronics, are liquidating. CompUSA closed most of its stores last year.

But no retailer is immune from the drop in consumer confidence and spending, especially one that specializes in gadgets, not groceries. Sales at Best Buy stores open more than a year were down 7.8 percent in October, compared with the same month last year. The company will not release November figures until Dec. 16, but it’s already clear that November was a brutal month for electronics retailers. According to a report MasterCard Advisors released last week, sales of electronics and appliances nationwide sank 25.2 percent in November, versus the same month last year.

Best Buy’s stock price, which reached almost $54 in November 2007, closed Friday at $23.05, and its market capitalization has shrunk to $9.5 billion. Because of slumping sales, Fitch Ratings in mid-November downgraded the outlook on Best Buy’s $2.7 billion in debt to negative, from stable.

Nevertheless, Karen Ghaffari, a managing director at Fitch, says she thinks Best Buy will weather the storm. Its longstanding reputation for high-quality service helped it grab market share this year when Circuit City laid off many of its highest-paid — and most experienced — sales workers, and shuttered stores.

“Best Buy is a very strong operator,” Ms. Ghaffari says, “and long-term they should benefit from the difficulties being experienced by the weaker competitors.”

That may well be so. But consumers’ reluctance to spend is making Best Buy’s investors skittish. Though analysts expect revenue to grow slightly next year as the company expands overseas, profit margins will come under pressure from price-cutting, especially on televisions. “Given the circumstances and uncertainty in what’s coming here in this market, we decline to comment,” said a press officer at Gardner Lewis Asset Management, which owned almost four million shares of Best Buy in June.

In an interview, Best Buy’s president, Brian Dunn, discussed the challenges the company faced. “The depth and speed with which the economy stumbled was extraordinary,” said Mr. Dunn, who started as a salesman at the chain 23 years ago. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Our business was growing really nicely and then, all of a sudden, boom!”

BEST BUY’S winter holiday shopping season is crucial, as it is for every retailer. A good Christmas can make the difference between a mediocre year and a fantastic one. Ten percent of a retailer’s sales can come on Black Friday alone, and typically, almost 60 percent of Best Buy’s profit comes from fourth-quarter sales.

Now that it’s clear that fourth-quarter sales and profits will be down substantially from last year, the chain is scrambling to cut costs. There will be fewer national TV commercials and more targeted e-mail crowing about low prices.

Best Buy stores are stocked with thousands of boxes of the hit video games Rock Band 2, Guitar Hero and Wii Fit, along with myriad camcorders, digital cameras, flat-screen TVs and GPS devices. Nevertheless, to make sure that the company isn’t stuck with mountains of unsold merchandise after Christmas, Best Buy is cutting inventory levels to match reduced demand, Mr. Dunn says. But the company will not say by how much.

“Suppliers are being flexible,” Mr. Dunn says. “Apple, HP, Samsung and Sony have answered the bell nicely and worked with us on inventory levels.”

To accommodate shoppers, Best Buy is offering more lenient financing. Customers who charge at least $499 worth of merchandise on a store credit card don’t have to pay interest for 18 months. “We don’t push it,” Mr. Dunn says, “but customers are grabbing the 18-month financing options.” Last year, shoppers had to spend at least $499 on one item to receive such financing. “Now you can put whatever you want into your cart to get it up to $499,” he says.

That strategy worked for Nadia Lora and her husband, Carlos, both 21. The couple work at Nunzio’s Grill, a restaurant in Vauxhall, N.J., where she is the manager and he is a cook. They were shopping at a Best Buy near the restaurant on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and they bought a JVC camcorder and a Garmin Nuvi GPS system, purposely spending enough to hit the $499 financing threshold. Ms. Lora said the Best Buy incentives allowed her to justify her purchases: “I like that they don’t charge interest for stuff for months.”

IN this stressed-out holiday season, Best Buy is trying to be hip and friendly. The chain is the only retailer to have exclusive rights to sell the new Guns N’ Roses album, “Chinese Democracy,” in its stores and has hired Magic Johnson to open stores in urban areas. Free limousine rides and mini-camcorders were offered to 25 customers in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami and other major markets who wrote compelling, 250-word essays about why shopping at Best Buy on the day after Thanksgiving was a meaningful ritual for their families.

Claudia Di Folco, 35, an actress and former television news reporter, was shopping at Best Buy two days before Thanksgiving. She bought a $299 Slingbox, which transfers whatever is playing on your home television onto a laptop, cellphone or PC, so her husband could watch the New York Jets game during a trip to Rome. Ms. Di Folco lives a few blocks from the Best Buy store at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side and shops there often. “They always have special sales, or at least the big yellow signs make you think they do,” she says.

On the day after Thanksgiving back at 62nd and Broadway, hundreds of electronics fans lined up. “We had a fabulous day,” says Ms. Adoniz, 41, that store’s manager, though she says she was less confident earlier in the week. “With everything happening with the economy, we didn’t know if that was going to scare customers away.”

But when she arrived at 1:30 a.m. on Friday, 500 people were waiting. Customers had been outside since Thanksgiving morning: they sat huddled in sleeping bags; the line went around the block to Central Park West and back. Ms. Adoniz gave out coffee and sales fliers.

Samsung employees played trivia contests with shoppers, doling out T-shirts, tote bags and other prizes. Ms. Adoniz’s fliers detailed the store’s so-called doorbuster sales — 50-inch plasma televisions for $799, laptops starting at $329, GPS devices for $99, digital cameras for $50. Prices have inched up since then, but, Ms. Adoniz says, “there is still a lot of holiday traffic and a lot more online ordering.” Laptops are particularly popular.

Among televisions, the best seller at her store was the 42-inch Dynex, the chain’s private label; it sold for $499. Margins on private-label items are much higher than margins on name-brand electronics, so Best Buy is pushing Dynex as well as its Insignia line of digital cameras, televisions and GPS devices.

“The TVs were flying out the door; they were huge,” Ms. Adoniz says.

The company hasn’t released official figures for Black Friday, but analysts say sales were better than expected. In an effort to keep customers buying, Best Buy aggressively promoted low prices on its Web site every day last week.

In a down economy, the biggest challenge for Best Buy may be from discounters that are chasing its core base of gadget-happy consumers.

Wal-Mart, Costco and Target have expanded their assortments,” says Steven L. Martin, who manages Slater Capital Management, a retail hedge fund. “Five years ago if you said Wal-Mart would sell plasma TVs, no one would have believed you.”

Best Buy also faces stiff competition from retailers like Amazon that do business exclusively online. The company is fighting back by allowing shoppers to make purchases online and then pick them up at Best Buy stores, which eliminates shipping costs. “Out of this storm comes new operating models,” Mr. Dunn says. “The ecosystem is going to change. We see storefronts closing.”

For now, though, Best Buy has a potent weapon in its battle with the discounters and online sellers: its staff. Members of Best Buy’s sales staff, a k a “Blue Shirts,” go through a 20-hour training program, then spend two weeks shadowing an experienced sales staff member around the floor. Historically, the Best Buy training program has been so strong, some people in the industry say, that competitors often waited for Best Buy to let staff go after Christmas, and then snap them up.

Ms. Di Folco, the actress, says: “Most of the time, I find really informed people who can actually answer my questions. It’s like they seem to be electronic junkies versus kids wasting time at a part-time job they don’t enjoy.”

Its sales force may give Best Buy a competitive advantage even in a holiday season when many customers are interested in rock-bottom prices.

“The importance of the salesperson is directly related to the price of the product being sold,” says Chris Denove, vice president at J. D. Power & Associates, the consumer research firm. “If you’re talking about toothpaste or pencils, the salesperson is immaterial, but when you’re talking about high-end electronics such as flat screen TVs, the salesperson can be critical.”

Target, meanwhile, is going after the technical support business — a big profit center for Best Buy — and has hired Zip Express, a company started by Chris Mauzy, a former Best Buy employee, to challenge the “Geek Squad” for which Best Buy is known. For a fee, members of the Geek Squad will install your purchase and provide technical support, even on products not bought at Best Buy. It’s a huge profit center for the company.

Mr. Mauzy, who left Best Buy to start Zip Express in October 2007, is introducing an electronics-installation service for 200 Target stores.

To further protect itself against inroads from the discounters, Best Buy is trying to make shopping more appealing to women. Its Omega Wolves program, a focus group made up of 3,500 working women in the United States and London, has a page on Facebook; Omegas socialize and give the chain feedback. Thanks to the Omegas, Ms. Adoniz’s store has what she calls “nicer fixtures,” like wood-trimmed displays and lighter backdrops.

Ms. Adoniz’s store also aims to stock accessories with women in mind: fake leopard skin and red crocodile cases for BlackBerrys and other gadgets from Liz Claiborne, Betsey Johnson, Dooney & Bourke, Tumi and Steve Madden. Crystal Stroupe, a personal shopper and an aspiring opera singer, spends much of her time at Best Buy keeping the accessories table neat and pretty.

Ms. Adoniz says the accessories table brings a lot of astonished looks, “but we know the female shopper was an underserved market.” Best Buy says women are now spending more money at its stores than men, which has led Ms. Adoniz and managers of other stores to expand accessories aimed at women. Many Best Buy stores now carry items like blow-dryers, curling irons and hair straighteners, as well as pink cameras and phones. “We have a whole personal care section and it does very well,” Ms. Adoniz says.

The effort to appeal to women may ultimately help Best Buy distinguish itself from traditional electronics retailers, which tend to market electronics to men.

“You can’t assume that every expensive TV is going to be bought by a male,” says Matthew J. Fassler, a retail analyst at Goldman Sachs. “Women need to be served as intently as men.”

THAT said, Best Buy’s business is hard-core electronics, not blow-dryers; the company is betting that if a family buys just one gift this December, it will involve electronic entertainment. “When the customer gets into difficulty, they tend to cocoon,” Mr. Dunn says. “After 9/11, they invested in their homes and loved ones and experiences.”

Mr. Dunn says he usually wins his office pool for predicting December results; this year, he’s betting that cocooning drives sales, but he acknowledges that “it’s too soon to tell” how the holiday season will play out.

“As the economy becomes tougher, people think more carefully about whether they really need to buy an item,” he says. “The threshold for a considered purchase has moved down. Last year, it might have been $500. This year, it might be $300, $200 or even $100 for some families.”

Enough for an iPod case and a Slingbox cable, but not much more.