I gripe a lot in this space, but the truth is I wake up counting my blessings every morning and then continually throughout the day. I hope you feel the same way.

THANKS FOR THE FREE BOOKS

Bob Anderton: ‘Your notion that one could read an entire book for free using Amazon’s ‘search this book’ box becomes even more useful with the realization that the page number is searchable. I.e., put ‘54‘ into the search box and one of the search results will be page 54. Too funny.’

THANKS FOR THE CHEAP CALLS

I don’t know how often you call Zambia, let alone from Bolivia, but this link opens up a whole new world of cheap calls.

Calling from Indiana to Italy? One thin dime. From Utah to Uganda? Thirty-two cents.

Or take this example. Say you are calling someone in China from your room at the Motel 6 outside Cleveland. Using the phone by your bed would cost three million dollars. But if you have a cell phone – even if it doesn’t let you make international calls – with this link it will cost you one dime . . . per minute, plus a flat 95 cent charge for all the calls you make this month. (No such charge in months you make no calls.) So 100 one-minute calls to China would cost you 100 dimes plus 95 cents – $10.95.)

If you’re in China calling Slovenia, land line to land line, it’s 23 cents. But just 18 cents from China to Slovakia, and a dime from Iceland to Ireland. It’s 82 cents from Bhutan to Botswana, but I am guessing – and this is only a guess – that’s still a bargain.

You don’t need broadband, you don’t need to download any software, you don’t need to sign any contracts or agree to any minimums or remember any calling-card numbers.

  • Sharp-eyed readers will see that this site allows you to do something entirely different as well: send up to 50 of your cousins or teammates or employees a voicemail (attached to an e-mail) simultaneously. Total cost? Twenty-two cents if it’s under three minutes.
  • Sharp-eyed readers will also see my name in the link and figure I get some fat commission on each of your calls to Burundi. Actually, it’s more insidious than that. Though I get no commission, I own part of this fledgling company. If it proves popular, there is the slim but real chance I could get my investment back. (There is even the theoretical chance, just as a monkey could accidentally type a coherent sentence if you kept him at the keyboard long enough, I could get more.)

Note that the site is still in beta, and that one particularly cool feature has not yet been implemented but shortly will be: the ability to store your frequently called numbers. So you’d just click on a friend’s name on your Palm Pilot, say, and, moments later, be talking to her.

Note further what a brave new world this is. The entrepreneur/owner runs the show from his office in Harlem. His engineers are in Argentina. Most of his customers so far are in South Africa (because it was featured in the paper there). Writes one of them: “I have now made calls to UK, USA and just now to France. It works perfectly. I’m telling my friends and business associates about it.”

Of course, not everyone can get on the Internet so easily. I asked our occasional housekeeper how often she calls her family in Peru. “Every day.” Turns out, she buys a $5 Boss New York phone card at the newsstand and gets 200 minutes from it – 2.5 cents a minute. (You can buy them on-line as well . . . or click here to find cards if you live elsewhere.) She has no reason to call China, but China is even less than 2.5 cents a minute. And here I thought I was so smart at a dime.

THANKS FOR NOTHIN’ – I’M GOING TO HELL

Well, thanks to Nick Kristof for this great column from the New York Times, almost entirely excerpted here. (Thanks, by the way, for the New York Times. Where would we be without it?)

November 24, 2004
OP-ED COLUMNIST
Apocalypse (Almost) Now
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

If America’s secular liberals think they have it rough now, just wait till the Second Coming.

The “Left Behind” series, the best-selling novels for adults in the U.S., enthusiastically depict Jesus returning to slaughter everyone who is not a born-again Christian. The world’s Hindus, Muslims, Jews and agnostics, along with many Catholics and Unitarians, are heaved into everlasting fire: “Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and . . . they tumbled in, howling and screeching.”

Gosh, what an uplifting scene!

If Saudi Arabians wrote an Islamic version of this series, we would furiously demand that sensible Muslims repudiate such hatemongering. We should hold ourselves to the same standard.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the co-authors of the series, have both e-mailed me (after I wrote about the “Left Behind” series in July) to protest that their books do not “celebrate” the slaughter of non-Christians but simply present the painful reality of Scripture.

“We can’t read it some other way just because it sounds exclusivistic and not currently politically correct,” Mr. Jenkins said in an e-mail. “That’s our crucible, an offensive and divisive message in an age of plurality and tolerance.”

Silly me. I’d forgotten the passage in the Bible about how Jesus intends to roast everyone from the good Samaritan to Gandhi in everlasting fire, simply because they weren’t born-again Christians.

I accept that Mr. Jenkins and Mr. LaHaye are sincere. (They base their conclusions on John 3.) But I’ve sat down in Pakistani and Iraqi mosques with Muslim fundamentalists, and they offered the same defense: they’re just applying God’s word.

Now, I’ve often written that blue staters should be less snooty toward fundamentalist Christians, and I realize that this column will seem pretty snooty. But if I praise the good work of evangelicals – like their superb relief efforts in Darfur – I’ll also condemn what I perceive as bigotry. A dialogue about faith must move past taboos and discuss differences bluntly. That’s what blue staters and red staters need to do about religion and the “Left Behind” books.

For starters, it’s worth pointing out that those predicting an apocalypse have a long and lousy record. In America, tens of thousands of followers of William Miller waited eagerly for Jesus to reappear on Oct. 22, 1844. Some of these Millerites had given away all their belongings, and the no-show was called the Great Disappointment.

In more recent times, the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970’s was Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth,” selling 18 million copies worldwide with its predictions of a Second Coming. Then, one of the hottest best sellers in 1988 was a booklet called “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988.” Oops.

Being wrong has rarely been so lucrative.

Now we have the hugely profitable “Left Behind” financial empire, whose Web site flatly says that the authors “think this generation will witness the end of history.” The site sells every “Left Behind” spinoff imaginable, including screen savers, regular prophecies sent to your mobile phone, children’s versions of the books, audiobooks, graphic novels, videos, calendars, music and a $6.50-a-month prophesy club. This isn’t religion, this is brand management.

If Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins honestly believe that the end of the world may be imminent, why not waive royalties? Why don’t they use the millions of dollars in profits to help the poor – and increase their own chances of getting into heaven?

Mr. Jenkins told me that he gives 20 to 40 percent of his income to charity, and that’s commendable. But there are millions more where that came from. Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins might spend less time puzzling over obscure passages in the Book of Revelation and more time with the straightforward language of Matthew 6:19, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” Or Matthew 19:21, where Jesus advises a rich man: “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. . . . It will be hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” . . .

AND SPEAKING OF THE END OF THE WORLD

Matt Ball: “You need to run this from the Boston Herald.” Several of you felt the same way:

Economic ‘Armageddon’ predicted
By Brett Arends / On State Street
Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Stephen Roach, the chief economist at investment banking giant Morgan Stanley, has a public reputation for being bearish.

But you should hear what he’s saying in private.

Roach met select groups of fund managers downtown last week, including a group at Fidelity.

His prediction: America has no better than a 10 percent chance of avoiding economic “armageddon.”

Press were not allowed into the meetings. But the Herald has obtained a copy of Roach’s presentation. A stunned source who was at one meeting said, “it struck me how extreme he was – much more, it seemed to me, than in public.”

Roach sees a 30 percent chance of a slump soon and a 60 percent chance that “we’ll muddle through for a while and delay the eventual armageddon.”

The chance we’ll get through OK: one in 10. Maybe.

In a nutshell, Roach’s argument is that America’s record trade deficit means the dollar will keep falling. To keep foreigners buying T-bills and prevent a resulting rise in inflation, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan will be forced to raise interest rates further and faster than he wants.

The result: U.S. consumers, who are in debt up to their eyeballs, will get pounded.

Less a case of “Armageddon,” maybe, than of a “Perfect Storm.”

Roach marshalled alarming facts to support his argument.

To finance its current account deficit with the rest of the world, he said, America has to import $2.6 billion in cash. Every working day.

That is an amazing 80 percent of the entire world’s net savings.

Sustainable? Hardly.

Meanwhile, he notes that household debt is at record levels.

Twenty years ago the total debt of U.S. households was equal to half the size of the economy.

Today the figure is 85 percent.

Nearly half of new mortgage borrowing is at flexible interest rates, leaving borrowers much more vulnerable to rate hikes.

Americans are already spending a record share of disposable income paying their interest bills. And interest rates haven’t even risen much yet.

You don’t have to ask a Wall Street economist to know this, of course. Watch people wielding their credit cards this Christmas.

Roach’s analysis isn’t entirely new. But recent events give it extra force.

The dollar is hitting fresh lows against currencies from the yen to the euro.

Its parachute failed to open over the weekend, when a meeting of the world’s top finance ministers produced no promise of concerted intervention.

It has farther to fall, especially against Asian currencies, analysts agree.

The Fed chairman was drawn to warn on the dollar, and interest rates, on Friday.

Roach could not be reached for comment yesterday. A source who heard the presentation concluded that a “spectacular wave of bankruptcies” is possible.

Smart people downtown agree with much of the analysis. It is undeniable that America is living in a “debt bubble” of record proportions.

But they argue there may be an alternative scenario to Roach’s. Greenspan might instead deliberately allow the dollar to slump and inflation to rise, whittling away at the value of today’s consumer debts in real terms.

Inflation of 7 percent a year halves “real” values in a decade.

It may be the only way out of the trap.

Higher interest rates, or higher inflation: Either way, the biggest losers will be long-term lenders at fixed interest rates.

You wouldn’t want to hold 30-year Treasuries, which today yield just 4.83 percent.

☞ Which is why you were smart enough to put a chunk of your core holdings in 30-year TIPS – Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (though at today’s prices, now up from 100 to about 129, they are harder to recommend) . . . and why you have a third of your stock market holdings deployed in overseas mutual funds . . . and why you may not have been enthusiastic about the disastrous Bush economic policies (although you never know; things could go just fine; I hope they do) . . . and why I have suggested such bizarre speculative alternatives – although ONLY for money you can afford to lose – as Borealis.

I CALLED BOREALIS

At the bottom of the November 11 Borealis press release – the one that says Boeing has selected a Borealis subsidiary to build a system to let pilots drive their planes around like golf carts without burning a lot of fuel or needing tow trucks to back out of their gates – there is a contact given for verifying the validity of the release.

So I called. And after a nice conversation called Boeing as well. And here is what I think I’ve learned:

1. It’s true.

2. It’s just a very early “proof of concept,” test, to see if the Chorus Motor strapped onto the front wheel of a 767 can actually pull the thing. (You may recall Jack LaLanne towing a barge with a bit in his teeth as he swam . . . this is similar.) Boeing will be paying Chorus approximately $600,000 to do the work required to perform this test.

3. The test will be performed on a real Boeing 767 belonging to a real airline at a real gate at a real airport.

“Can’t you just run it around the parking lot in Seattle?” I asked.

“We don’t own any airplanes.” I was told.

“Boeing doesn’t own any airplanes?”

“No, they are built to order. As a plane comes off the line, it is already owned by somebody else. But we have gotten an airline to cooperate with us on this, and we have gotten an airport to go along with the test as well.”

4. This is not a test of a real, I integrated system where the plane will actually take off. It is just to see whether Jack LaLanne can really pull the barge. We should know that around April, give or take.

5. If it works as well as expected, Boeing will then put out to competitive bid a contract for developing a fully integrated system that, if successfully developed, could actually become part of commercial aircraft. There are some companies that make DC motors that may be invited to bid. Chorus could have an edge because its motor is AC. There are safety issues involved.

6. Whoever gets the contract, if it gets that far, developing a successful system could be about a two-year project. If all went well, the first planes might be tooling around the tarmac like golf carts in 2007 or 2008 . . . but, obviously, there are a great many “ifs” along the way.

OK? What this suggests to me is that Borealis may indeed be a real company with real technologies sufficiently interesting to have gotten Boeing to go this far. And if the Chorus Motors subsidiary has some promise, so may the other subsidiaries. If the company projections were to prove true – which they won’t and certainly have not to date – the parent company would be worth many tens of billions (it closed Wednesday night at a market cap of $40 million). Dell, which has absolutely nothing to do with any of this, but provides a means of comparison, makes computers. It makes them very well, but it is not the only company that makes computers. Its market cap is $100 billion. If Borealis’s patented technologies truly revolutionized something as basic as electric motors, the stock could rise 100-fold and still have a market cap just 4% the size of Dell’s. It could rise 1000-fold from here and have a market cap 40% the size of Dell’s.

It is preposterous to think anything like this will happen. I am prepared for every one of Borealis’s subsidiaries and patents to prove worthless and the stock one day to be zero. But it’s also possible that the interest in these technologies expressed by the folks at Boeing and Rolls Royce and Semikron just might be a sign that there is some “there” there. I no longer believe, even a little, this is “a stock that is surely going to zero,” as I titled my first few accounts of it here years ago. My own guess – and it’s crucial to stress that it’s just a guess – is that it’s as likely to be up 10-fold a couple of years from now as to be zero, and that’s a coin-toss I like betting on.

FINALLY, THANKS FOR JOURNALISTS LIKE KEVIN SITES

Whatever one ultimately makes of this awful incident (I posted one former Navy Seal’s commentary on it yesterday) – where a marine was caught on tape executing a wounded Iraqi in a mosque – Sites has provided us with a vivid close-up account of what happened.

Which brings me back to giving thanks. We owe huge thanks to our brave young servicemen and women. However poorly planned the mission on which they were sent, they are doing their damnedest, at enormous risk and sacrifice, while all I was asked to do was take a huge tax cut.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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