Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Increasing Supply, Increasing Demand

There's no gouging at the pumps, the economists tell us; it's good old supply and demand. More cars, more fuel needed, not enough petrol to go around and look there on the graph where high demand meets low supply. Right where the high prices intersect.

Over in Whiting, Indiana, British Petroleum is going to expand their refinery. They hear the cry of the consumer, pleading for more liquid gold to power the family fleet of automobiles, and they are coming to the rescue. Create more pollution. The state of Indiana is all for it, with the promise of thousands of temporary jobs during the construction process, followed by up to eighty new positions to run the expanded refinery. In a few years, there will be more gasoline in the pipeline, and more supply equates to lower prices. More ammonia and sludge into Lake Michigan.

With jobs on the line, Indiana granted BP a variance from current environmental laws so that the Whiting facility could be modified to handle heavy crude oil from Canada. Canada's that friendly nation just to the north, the non-Muslim extremist place that is pumping crude oil to drive the world's economy. However, Canada's oil is of a slightly different composition and it takes different equipment to refine. No one can argue that more refinery capacity is sorely needed. Biggest polluter gets bigger. BP is fully prepared to meet that need.

Meanwhile, on the other shores of the Great Lake, local officials are up in arms about the new refinery. The nation, indeed, the world is desperate for more fuel, yet these politicians would try to stop a critical project that would lower gasoline prices. What wise office-holder wouldn't want to get behind something like that? More ammonia which promotes fish-killing algae, more heavy metals, more poisonous mercury.

In the face of the controversy, BP has reminded the anti-price-lowering whingers that they will be upgrading their wastewater treatment facilities, all in an effort to protect Lake Michigan from the shite that they dump into the source of fresh water for a sizable portion of the population. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has chimed in, to assure the public that the added pollution will not damage the lake, nor will it poison fish or people.

Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois has taken a dangerous tack, considering the fact that he is facing a challenger in the upcoming election. He has proposed the elimination of Federal tax breaks to companies that increase discharges into the lake, thereby blocking a much needed increase in refinery capacity due to the economic burden that would be imposed on a firm like BP. How will he face the voters, who are clamoring for lower gasoline prices? Unless, of course, the electorate has been reading the fine print.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Flip This Investment

Buy it, tart it up, and make a quick sale at a profit. Popular concept when it comes to real estate, and now Reed Elsevier will give it a go with one of their investments.

Not long after buying a $300 million stake in the Riverdeep - Houghton Mifflin - Harcourt minnow - whale - shark conglomerate, the suits at Reed would like to unload that same stake. As if someone would buy it. Anyone in real estate knows that you talk up your property before selling, not down, and Sir Crispin Davis of Reed Elsevier hasn't taken a very positive note lately.

Never planned on a "long-term shareholding" he says about the recent agreement to pick up a stake in HM Riverdeep. Only did it to tart up the deal, make the banks happy. Oh look, the staid lenders at Credit Suisse were heard to say, it must be a grand deal because Reed Elsevier is buying into it. Now it turns out that Sir Crispin doesn't want to keep what he bought after all.

All the talk these days is about the growing tightness in the market and how so many leveraged buy-outs are in danger of being caught up in a credit squeeze. Naturally, anyone holding stock in Reed Elsevier would have been concerned about the potential deal, as the cost of borrowing $7.4 billion seemed headed to the astronomical heights. They didn't want to be stuck with some bad paper, and apparently Sir Crispin doesn't want to be stuck with it either.

The purchase of Reed's Harcourt Education division must still face regulatory muster, and that will eat up time. With the recent volatility in the markets, no one can say what the credit situation will be at the end of the year, when the deal could be finalized. Barry O'Callaghan is playing the odds that the interest rates will remain steady, while Sir Crispin is hedging his bets in the event that interest rates climb and there's not quite so much capital available.

Sir Crispin is also counting on some other financial gambler who thinks like Mr. O'Callaghan. Who else would buy up Reed's piece of HMRiverdeepHarcourt?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Royal Treatment

A member of Qatar's ruling family must surely have been spoiled as a lad. Growing up with all that money, palaces and servants, being made to feel ever so special. Possibly even trained to a perception of superiority over the rest of the world, but such is the attitude of the fabulously wealthy.

Recently, one of Qatar's elite was travelling from Milan with a few family members. Perhaps they had taken a short holiday, or perhaps the ladies had a yearning to go shopping for some exquisite little frocks from the Italian designers who make Milan their home base. When one has money to burn, jetting to Italy would be somewhat akin to one of us common folk running out for a pack of ciggies after dinner. When you're out, you get more so that you can indulge in a little illicit pleasure.

Depending on when one buys one's tickets, even in business class, a large group may not be able to sit together. Wait too long, and there'll be a seat here, a pair over there, and four near the bulkhead. When the British Airways flight was ready to take off from Linate Airport, the sheikh from Qatar discovered that a few of his female relations ended up sitting next to men they did not know.

Big feckin' deal, a westerner might say. You buy a seat and you don't know who you're next to and it doesn't matter unless it's some drunken oaf who falls asleep on your shoulder. Pop in the old earbuds on the iPod and you won't even know that there's anyone around you.

Ah, yes, but these particular female relations were Muslim, wouldn't you know, and local Qatar custom dictates that they not be in the same general vicinity as men they are not related to. What's the limit on that exactly? All right for them to be in the same business class section, but not right next to? Can they sit in front of or behind strangers? Across the aisle?

Trying to accomodate one wealthy man's tribal customs that have been disguised as religious teachings, the airline asked other passengers if they would move so that the ladies could avoid breathing the exhalations of strangers with Y chromosomes. Ah, feck off, the passengers must have thought, because no one would move. So there he was, the sheikh, getting no cooperation from the evil infidels. He couldn't have his female relatives insulted or whatever it would be considered should they sit next to strange men. So off he went to complain to the pilot.

Ah, feck off, the pilot declared in some other more polite phrasing. Get off my plane, you and your relations and your servants and your Qatar-ese whinging. Get off and walk home for all we care at British Airways.

Three hours late, the plane took off for London without the Qatar party. Naturally, it arrived late and fifty of the one hundred fifteen passengers missed their connecting flights. Wherever the sheikh landed, he is sure to blame his ill treatment on anti-Muslim sentiment and decry the west. As for the people on the flight that he inconvenienced with his misogynistic practices, they might not have been against Islam before, but they're none too fond of the religion at the moment.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Day Late, Dollar Short

Having spent upwards of $11 billion to acquire its rivals, Macy's is struggling to get the shoppers back into their Chicago stores. No, they're not about to restore the old name of Marshall Field and Company. They've stubbornly committed to the re-branding and they won't go back.

How will they get people to set foot in the flagship store on State Street? It doesn't help that the city's Health Department had to shut down the lower level food court for a few days, citing a fruit fly infestation and leaking plumbing. Those who might have wandered the aisles on their lunch break, after grabbing a quick sandwich, will not be keen to return and wonder what they might be putting into their stomachs besides the tuna salad and bread.

As if that were not enough, a man chose to commit suicide the other night by jumping to his death from an eighth floor balcony. When the Field family built the original store, they copied the lay-out of Galeries Lafayette in Paris, with its full height atrium and open balconies overlooking the ground floor. There's even a Tiffany mosaic ceiling in the Chicago store, doing a splendid job of reproducing the French shopping experience. Unfortunately, the soaring space became the venue for one desperate individual's plunge, and that alone will spook a few potential clients.

The most damaging incident, however, could well be Macy's plan to bring the commission schedules of the former Fields employees into line with New York City. It amounts to a pay cut, and it's due to hit shortly before the holiday shopping season. Those who wish to bolt will be given a severance package.

Imagine shopping in a store where the employees are miserable, grousing about management, and feeling rather strongly that putting in any effort to serve you is contrary to their interests. You'd not be shopping there long, especially if you couldn't find something straight away and had to ask someone -- someone who couldn't give a toss if you found what you wanted.

There'll be Martha Stewart galore, in an effort to attract shoppers. The problem is, the average consumer is aware that Martha Stewart lent her name to a line of products at K-Mart, which is a notch down the quality ladder from Wal-Mart. She's to decorate the famous Christmas tree in the Walnut Room, a quintessential Chicago icon, but the tree was always lavish, not cut-rate.

In a bid to tweak the emotions of Chicago shoppers, Macy's is going to bring back, in limited numbers, some of the old Field Gear line of apparel. It was preppy, somewhat costly, and of good quality for the price. Totally out of line with Macy's bargain basement, overpriced goods, and anyone who considers buying will examine the merchandise very carefully and critically.

The Chicago History Museum will partner with Macy's to showcase the centenary of the Tiffany ceiling and the Great Clock -- all further reminders of what was once Marshall Field and Company, a Chicago classic, the vendors to the carriage trade. It was elegance and grandeur in all its Arts and Crafts decor, giving the ladies what they wanted rather than what some buyers in New York City determined they should want. To promote something that has been lost does not have the makings of a sound business strategy, not when you're the company that did away with it in the first place and the shoppers have yet to forgive you.

But it's too late to reintroduce an old line and bask in past glories. Macy's has already made its first impression, and judging by the lack of feet in the store aisles, it was a rather bad impression. Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren wants to re-invent the department store, but he's going about it in a rather dangerous manner. Cut the wages of the employees, the very people who will complain to their neighbors who will pass the word about Macy's stinginess? If Macy's wanted to add fuel to the boycott fire, they're doing a remarkable job. It's an ongoing case of not knowing the market at all, and then wondering why Chicago shoppers don't meet expectations.

Fighting Outsourcing

The mild-mannered employees of Reilly Bookbinders are not taking their redundancies lightly. In an effort to cut labor costs, Dunne and Wilson Group, owners of the bookbinding firm, are moving operations to the Czech Republic, where workers are paid less per hour.

Fourteen people were employed in the business, which has been declared insolvent. After putting in twenty-five or thirty years in binding books, they find themselves without jobs and with few prospects. There's not much call for high paid workers in a labor intensive field. And because the company is insolvent, there's no money left at the end to make redundancy payments.

There's only so much that the Department of the Taoiseach, University College Dublin, Cork and Galway, and the Labour Court are willing to pay to get their documents bound. When an Irish firm paying Irish workers a legally mandated wage have to compete against Eastern European companies that pay less, there's no question that the locals are going to lose -- even though they are binding books for government entities.

The former employees of Reilly Bookbinders are staging a sit-in protest, not leaving until they get something to tide them over as they land out on the street without work. The Irish Print Group division of the labor union is calling for a liquidator to be brought in, to sell off assets so that some funds are generated to fund the redundancy payments, but Dunne and Wilson have every intention of packing up the bookbinding equipment and taking it all to the Czech Republic and its cheaper labor pool.

In the meantime, the people losing their jobs are holding the building to ransom, as it were, by refusing to allow any equipment to be taken out, and barring the release of customer orders. They are fighting against Dunne and Wilson's position on the issue, with the workers insisting that they are entitled to severance pay and the bosses claiming that they are not responsible for paying because the firm is insolvent. The redundancy money is just another debt that can't be paid for lack of cash.

In the end, however, there will no longer be a bookbinder in Wicklow town and fourteen older people will be out of work. A local official in a Czech town will trumpet his success at attracting jobs and the people of the town will be thrilled to have jobs that pay anything when all they had before was nothing. Down the road, they'll grumble for higher wages, better benefits, and before long the jobs will be packed up and moved to the next country that promises lower labor costs to the employer.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Buying The Excuse

Ireland's Minister for Energy and Natural Resources has arrived in Washington DC to meet his fellow politicians to discuss that which politicians discuss. As Mr. Eamon Ryan could not very well peddle his bicycle across the ocean, the green-oriented gentleman had to come up with some other way to not put carbon into the air.

He could of course have chartered a tall-masted schooner and crossed the Atlantic under wind power alone, but that is time consuming and Mr. Ryan has things to do. He can't very well take a month or two to conduct a bit of political business, when a plane would cut his travel time to almost insignificance. Pity, as there is yet a touch of romance in a square-rigged ship, canvas billowing, cutting through the waves. You'd think that a man so keen to use alternative energy would put in a good word for the beauty of sailing.

But Mr. Ed Markey, who chairs the House Sub-Committee for Telecoms, was waiting and we all have schedules to keep and things to do. Dick Beaird of the State Department had Mr. Ryan pencilled in his daily calendar, and people from Global Telecom were expecting a call from the minister. No time to sail, speed of the essence, so the Green Party minister had no choice but to fly over in a carbon-spewing plane.

But how can he be green while flying? It's not easy being green, as Kermit the Frog has pointed out so sweetly, but it's simple, actually. Mr. Ryan paid down his guilt.

The airplane burned fossil fuel, make no mistake about that, and it did put carbon atoms into the atmosphere. The difference with those particular carbon atoms is the fact that the Irish Government used taxpayer euro to buy carbon credits. Makes it all better, doesn't it? Isn't the air sweeter because of the use of Exchequer cash? Who needs to buy books and uniforms for poor children when there's carbon to be offset?

Everyone gets their quota of carbon dioxide emissions, and if you're clever enough to not use all of yours, then someone like Eamon Ryan will come along and give you money so that they can spew CO2 into the atmosphere and feel good about it. It's all about the gesture, of appearing to be doing one's bit to reduce greenhouse gasses, but not really doing anything constructive. Give some organization the cash, and you can claim that you didn't harm the earth at all with your transatlantic flight.

As for actually reducing emissions, doing something concrete and constructive? That's for the little people, those who are too poor to afford the grand gesture of buying carbon credits and behaving as if they are the champions of the air we breathe.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Variations On The Literary Agent

Peter McGuigan was an agent at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates for several years, and like many others, he has gone off on his own. Nothing out of the ordinary, as literary agents are forever moving offices or starting up agencies or becoming editors.

What is different is the complex set of services that Mr. McGuigan seeks to provide. He's not just representing an author's works, trying to sell manuscripts to publishing houses. He is taking a cue from some of the big agencies, places like ICM that rep any and all talent. Written a book and you're a celebrity? He'll get you speaking engagements, a spot on TV to plug your manuscript, and he'll even polish the manuscript before it goes out.

Agent and book packager, that is what the new Foundry Literary & Media is all about. In addition to the agenting side of the industry, Mr. McGuigan is also entering the book production business, with an in-house crew that can turn your brand into a book. Say you're known around town as a champion cookie baker, with your little cottage industry that's taken off. The next thing you know, Foundry Literary & Media gets hold of you and you're Mrs. Fields, with a biography, a cookbook or two, appearances to plug your stuff on Leno or Letterman or the Late, Late....and there's the agent getting his 15%.

The duties and services are expanding to meet the needs for greater profits. If it's true that the publishing industry is getting tighter, making it more difficult to sell manuscripts, then a wise agent would want to get a bigger basket in which to put his eggs. But for those of us who aren't celebrities, who lack a personal brand, are we being left further and further behind?

Do authors have to get creative in the same way, expanding beyond the fiction manuscript to create some brand buzz? I could start up a poitin still in the back garden, then write about my exploits in the beverage industry and various run-ins with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. What with the editors et al. employed by Foundry Literary & Media, I wouldn't have to be a good writer, and the time that I spend now on improving my writing skills could be put to some other, more marketable, use.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Cleaning Out The In Box

When Joanne Brownstein at Brandt & Hochman didn't respond to the query sent in April, I figured she was either not going to respond, or she had already left the agenting business after less than six months. Might as well fire off a query to someone else at the agency, if that's how it's going to be.

Two rejections from two different Brandt & Hochman agents turned up in the mail. Nice little personalized billet deux from Ms. Brownstein, by the way. And a photocopied, standard issue, lack of interest rejection letter as well. Some summer intern or other must have been put to the task of tackling the query letters and they went at their project with glee and the intense desire to please that is the hallmark of the eager intern. So he or she or they managed to clear out the entire in-box, down to the most recently received, and they'll earn a dash of gratitude for their time. The agents will send them off with a wish of good luck at university and assurances of a bright tomorrow in their future career as a literary agent.

Can't say the same for the folks at Curtis Brown. Maureen Walters was quick to send off the rejection, within a week of the snail-mail query arriving. Haven't heard from Mitchell Waters, who is pondering over a query sent in early June, for a different manuscript. That doesn't count, does it? I know it's bad form to query two agents at the same agency at the same time, but if it's different genres and all, will they care? Or will the assistants even notice? Somehow I doubt it.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Vaccine Controversy

What's worse, the risk of autism or foregoing the MMR vaccine?

Parents were asking themselves that question after Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a research paper in The Lancet, in which he set out his theory that the vaccine caused autism. In part, he based the theory on work that was done by Trinity College Dublin professor John O'Leary, a pathologist who examined intestinal biopsies of children diagnosed with autistic enterocolitis. According to the professor, the tissue samples from these autistic children contained the measles virus. Some parents, alarmed at the news, chose to skip the vaccine and take their chances with measles, mumps and rubella. A few whose children were autistic chose to sue the vaccine makers.

Dr. Wakefield now finds himself in trouble with the General Medical Council in London, which is questioning his fitness to practice. This comes on the heels of a hearing last month in a US Federal claims court, where Professor Stephen Bustin has testified in his capacity as an expert in PCR testing. He went to Professor O'Leary's lab in the Coombe hospital and he tried to replicate Mr. O'Leary's results, which formed the basis for Dr. Wakefield's article in The Lancet. No measles RNA turned up in his test tubes. The original research could not be replicated. As far as Professor Bustin could tell, what the folks at the Unigenetics lab were picking up was contamination. The original tests were not conducted properly, nor were they specific for measles. The positive results were positive for DNA, but measles is an RNA virus. It couldn't be measles that they found if they had found DNA.

Unigenetics is a private firm that was paid 800,000 pounds sterling from a British legal fund that was set up for the benefit of those who were damaged by the MMR virus. It now appears that there was no harm at all, that Dr. Wakefield's theory has been shot full of holes and sunk. The experiment that shored up his MMR vaccine/autism connection could not be repeated by another researcher, and that is scientific death.

Such a wild frenzy of panic when the notion was first put forward, and in such a prestigious journal as The Lancet. Such a quiet buzz, as the notion is refuted and shown to be nothing more than artifact. The latest news about autism and MMR vaccine is not very sexy, not very hot and newsworthy. How long will it take doctors to convince their patients that what has become folk wisdom has been thoroughly debunked? How many children will needlessly suffer from a preventable illness like measles because of something that has been shown to be nothing more than laboratory error?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Joy Of The Joy

Good morning, the guards might have said to Joe O'Reilly earlier today. Welcome to the Joy. Mountjoy Prison, once called Mountjoy Gaol, still a monument to British rule and the fight for independence. Still lacking central plumbing. Slop out your cell, please.

Joe O'Reilly said he didn't kill his wife. He said he was at work with a colleague, but mobile phone records put the two men in two different places when they were supposed to be together, and the alibi witness said on the stand that he wasn't really sure of the timing of their work schedule. Maybe he was apart from Joe during the time that the coroner determined Rachel O'Reilly was being murdered.

After a long day of deliberating, the jury in the Rachel O'Reilly murder trial decided that her husband Joe had the motive, the opportunity, and the desire to be quit of his wife. The evidence presented in court led the jury to declare that Joe O'Reilly had been at the family home and beat the woman to death. Guilty of murder, sentenced to life imprisonment, and there'll be no leave to appeal granted.

Joe O'Reilly gave every indication to his acquaintances that he wanted to divorce his wife, but Irish custody law favors the mother and he wanted sole custody. A complaint filed by his mother to the child protective services did no good; the children were not removed from the home. What to do, when he wanted to have his family but with a new wife?

Welcome to Mountjoy, in all its Victorian prison architecture glory. By trying to gain that which was completely selfish, Joe O'Reilly is left with nothing. And he's sure to be missing the flush toilet by now.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Yes, They Are Being Sincere Actually

As soon as Bulgaria and Romania were admitted to the European Union, existing members flew into a bit of a panic. Can't have all those Eastern Europeans moving about at will, settling where they like...or settling where the welfare benefits are the most generous.

In Ireland, emigrants from the newest EU member states cannot come stay unless they have a job, which requires a work permit. Ignore the law, and you get deported. Sounds very simple and straightforward, but those who wrote the law never took Pavee Point into account.

Life in Romania sucks, to put it mildly. So why would a Gypsy family want to stay there when they can come to Ireland and take advantage of all that is offered to the unemployed? Hence, a large contingent of Roma (as they prefer to be called) took up residence on the M50 roundabout in Ballymun, and sat back while they pleaded their hard-luck case.

Time's up on the gypsy camp, and so the Garda National Immigration Bureau paid them a visit this morning. Time to go, the government officials said, back from whence you came as you have no visible means of support and you've made an absolute mess of the roundabout with your shacks and tents and cardboard shelters. Go, leave, be gone.

Not so fast, said the kind hearts of Pavee Point. Those are travelling folks, like our own Travellers, and how cruel you are to make them leave. They are here in Ireland because Romania is an absolute hell hole. It is imperative that the Irish government provide free accommodations for the Rostas family of fifty, as it won't do to allow them to live on the side of the M50. But the ultimate solution? Ireland should put pressure on Romania to improve living conditions in Romania. What a brilliant idea. Why ever has no one thought about it before?

Justice Minister Brian Lenihan is thinking about issuing a removal order, to deport the Rostas clan on the grounds that they are in Ireland illegally. They have another fifteen days to come up with a good reason to be allowed to stay, and Pavee Point will undoubtedly be firmly on their side.

The Travellers in Ireland are largely reviled and discriminated against, and Pavee Point is not helping their cause at all with this particular crusade.

The End Of The Phenomenon

Today is officially a Harry Potter themed day. Deranged parents permit their offspring to don fancy dress and pretend to be some favorite character from the books penned by J.K. Rowling. Long lines snake through book shops, people sit up half the night reading, and some of the more savvy turn to the last chapter and settle things before bed.

Publishers watch the end of the line pick up copies of the seventh in a series and bid the readers a fond farewell. They didn't know this would happen when the first book was laid out on tables and shelves. They don't know why exactly this happened, that there would be such an enormous surge of buying and profits stretching lazily across the bottom line. The big houses wipe away collective tears of sorrow, knowing that because of all they do not know, they cannot easily replicate the success of Harry Potter.

Simple tales of good and evil, mixed in with highly imaginative characters and scenery....that's about all that it is. Well written, but not in some fancy, highly literate "I'm so smart and you're too dense to understand my prose' type of word-play.

Gamblers know the odds and play accordingly. Publishers, on the other hand, can't quite read the hand they've been dealt. As a business model, it's not the sort of thing you'd want to invest your pension in, but what a wretched world it would be if they ceased to exist.

Friday, July 20, 2007

An Upset Of The Natural Order

Monday and Tuesday, the snail mail query rejections will be found in the day's mail delivery. Then on Wednesday and Thursday, possibly Friday, the e-mail inbox will contain the request for more pages....if, of course, there is any interest and the odds are heavily stacked against that.

How dare the literary agents not follow precedent that is carved into the hardest stone. Yesterday, Anna Webman at Curtis Brown rejected my e-query, but yesterday was a Thursday! That's a day reserved for acceptances. And then last night, Kristin Nelson sent a form rejection. Rejection? On a Thursday? To cap off the week, Stuart Krichevsky rejected an e-query that was sent nearly four months ago. Thanks for replying at all, of course, but it hardly seems worth the bother to send the form letter. And to reply on the wrong day of the week, to make matters worse.

I'm stunned. Years of training by literary agents, and now they've gone and changed the rules. What next? No reply to snail mail queries? Oh, no, wait, they're doing that already.

Might as well send out more snail-mail queries and use up the cache of stamps that's collecting dust. There's new ways of operating, and I've no choice but to begin training anew.

Fly Away Home

As far as prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is concerned, Conrad Black's signed agreement to not fight extradition from Canada is not worth the paper it's printed on. The document would not be enforceable under Canadian law.

In addition, the Palm Beach property that Mr. Black used as collateral for his bond was not always current on its mortgage payments. That implies that the valuable parcel could be lost to foreclosure, and what security would the courts have then? The convict would jump bail, losing nothing but what was already lost. Besides, said convict might have transferred all sorts of assets to his wife's name, hidden from view, so that when he skipped town he would have a soft cushion to land on.

Judge Amy St. Eve took it all into consideration in reaching her decision about Conrad Black's next place of residence. Mr. Fitzgerald may have liked nothing better than to watch the former media baron be handcuffed and led away from the Dirksen Federal Building in shame, to take up occupancy of a cozy cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center near downtown Chicago. Mr. Black is keen to return to Canada, to spend some time at home. The judge has found the middle ground between a cell and Toronto.

Can't enforce a non-waiver of extradition? Then Mr. Black will have to remain in the US, where no one cares at all about his peerage. He has a choice, between Chicago where former Sun-Times employees loathe him, or southern Florida, where his neighbors might not be quite so friendly as they used to be.

The once lavish lifestyle is going to be crimped as well. Under an agreement with Canada, Mr. Black's assets are frozen, although a pending sale of some Canadian newspapers could provide about $7 million in walking around money.

No matter where he goes, the convictions will follow Mr. Black, hovering overhead as a blot on his character. It's only a matter of time, however, before a literary agent comes calling, and a book is in the works, and a comfortable advance paid out. Celebrity books are hot, hot, hot, even if the celebrity is famous for being infamous.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Moody's Goes Fishing

Moody's must have gotten wind of the HM Riverdeep acquisition of Harcourt. Spies in the right places, no doubt. Sad to say, but it's an ill wind that's now blowing, because Moody's is thinking about downgrading the credit rating for the whale-swallowing minnow.

Walk into a bank and ask for a mortgage and the bank will want to know how much you already owe. That's about what Moody's is doing to Barry O'Callaghan's project. He owes $2.4 billion, he wants to borrow more, so what are the odds that he'll default somewhere down the line? The more risk you incur, the more you pay, because the loan giver wants a greater reward for taking a bigger risk.

The ratings service will examine the "pro-forma capital structure" of HM Riverdeep, to see if Mr. O'Callaghan is truly going to deliver on the synergies he promised, and when he might expect to realize some debt pay down. With current debt at B3 and B1, a further decrease would not be desired by the HM Riverdeep directors. When they go, hat in hand, to Citibank and Credit Suisse for the next loan, they do not want that loan to cost HM Riverdeep more than now anticipated. There is a limit to the amount of interest that can be paid and still make the Harcourt acquisition viable.

Barry O'Callaghan clearly wants his plans to succeed. Irish business is rooting for him, the local boy who made it big...made an Irish company one of the biggest in the world. He's under pressure now, with Moody's little fishing expedition, to get those synergies flowing and show some positive progress, or the Harcourt deal could be endangered.

So where will he start cutting?

Hollywood Had It Wrong

Movies are sometimes based on history, and those in the know get a chance to demonstrate their knowledge of trivia. The whole Godfather movie series had a touch of reality about it, in that Mafia-watchers could point to certain incidents and tie them to something that actually happened to organized crime families in New York.

And the movies did very well at the box office and went on to sell profitably as DVDs. Then along came the movie Casino to ride on the coat tails of this peculiar fascination with Italian criminals, and again, the cognoscenti described the origins of the story. It was based in part on real gangsters out in Las Vegas, they said, members of the Chicago Outfit. Based, yes, but how much was fact and how much was fiction?

The reality of the story is being told in a Chicago court room by those who took part in the original version of Casino. Nicholas Calabrese, a made member of Chicago's crime syndicate, got himself into a bind when he mistakenly left a glove, with his blood on it, at a murder scene. He knew he was in trouble because a Chicago police detective, who was part of Mr. Calabrese's clique, told him about the evidence. With that in mind, Mr. Calabrese decided to sing to the authorities. The result is a detailed presentation of a hit that was immortalized on film, albeit incorrectly.

Portrayed by Joe Pesci in the movie, Anthony Spilotro was the Chicago mob's man in Las Vegas. The highly lucrative skim of casino profits was bringing in tremendous amounts of cash, but it appears that Mr. Spilotro got greedy and garnered more money for himself by turning his crew loose to commit robberies and other petty crimes. That brought attention to the criminal enterprise, and in turn that put the heat on the skim operations. Bad for business, to have law enforcement probing the secret doings of the casino counting rooms, so Mr. Spilotro had to go.

He was not, in fact, beaten to death in the Indiana cornfield where he was found. Rather, he was lured to a basement in a suburban home, thinking that he was going to be made a capo in Las Vegas and his brother was going to be made a member of the Outfit. Twelve men, including Nicholas Calabrese, were waiting with baseball bats for the Spilotro brothers. According to Mr. Calabrese, Anthony "The Ant" asked for time to say a prayer, but he was not granted his last request.

As part of his testimony yesterday, Mr. Calabrese described the entire murder quite calmly. He mentioned who was there, who did what. Mr. Calabrese tackled Michael Spilotro while Louis the Mooch put a rope around the victim's neck. He wiped up some blood from where Anthony Spilotro had been beaten. Moved the Spilotro car to another location. Went for a cup of coffee.

John Fecarotta was there when the Spilotro brothers were murdered, and he was charged with making the bodies disappear. Not long after the killings, an Indiana farmer made a gruesome discovery in his field. Not long after that, John Fecarotta was found dead.

The mobsters on film have a humanity about them, a set of conflicting emotions that make them appealing to the viewer. Why else would so many people anticipate the final episode of The Sopranos, and then spend hours debating the ending? Why are the Godfather films so intriguing, no matter how old the original might be?

We can watch the criminals from a distance, safely sanitized for viewing. Indeed, as the protagonist of a story, the mobster has to be painted with some redeeming quality to appeal to the reader or the viewer. In reality, they are very different from the screen portrayal, devoid of redeeming qualities and marked by their utter inhumanity.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Does Anyone Really Fall For This?

From the desk of Mrs. Judith Scott Williams
Threadneedle Street London EC2R 8AH

"We apologies," she says, for the delay of your payment. Judith, mo stor, that's not English. Right off I know you don't speak the language, so how stupid would I have to be to believe that you really do work for the Bank of England?

"We apologies, for the delay of your payment and all the inconveniences and inflict that we might have indulge you through."

Excuse me, what? Jesus, Mary and Holy St. Joseph but that translation software you're using is so far off the mark as to be incomprehensible. Oh yes, I'm really believing now that you work for the Bank of feckin' England. Who could resist that prose, the way you turn a phrase?

By the way, your e-mail address from whence this work of art originated? The 'pt' at the end tells me you're in Portugal. Long way from England, isn't it, darling?

Thanks all the same, and I'm thrilled to bits that "the square peg is now in square whole and can be voguish for that" my payment will be released as soon as I respond. Six million, five hundred thousand Great Britain Pounds will be left to languish, I fear, as I am not fully an eejit, in spite of my demonstrated persistence in trying to get a novel published.

How in the name of Heaven could anyone fall for this amateurish scam?

This Is A Red Flag

Let's say you're looking for a literary agent and you come across an agency page at Publisher's Marketplace. You click on the link to the agency's website and read all about them. In some cases, this is as far as you have to go. The alarm bells sound, the red flags wave, and you back away.

WriteHigh is newly listed at Publishers Marketplace, and we're all looking for new agencies or new agents who are hungry for fresh manuscripts. The agency and its agent are not listed at Preditors & Editors, so how new might they be?

Give it a little time, and Dave Kuzminsky will add WriteHigh to his 'Not Recommended' list. The agency fits one of his key criteria: conflict of interest. To wit:

After your book has been thoroughly edited by Monique and Susan, they will send it out to a target Reader service ("FRANK in INDIANA") for review. Rarely does "Frank" feel that a manuscript is good to go. Another edit is usually required to please his finicky but ever-so-important requirements.

This is not what literary agents do. They do not sit down and edit your manuscript, and then turn it over to some mysterious reader to edit. And there's a warning, right up front, that you are going to be billed for editing if you are foolish enough to sign with WriteHigh. In black and white, you are told that your manuscript is going to need work, and editing work costs money. All well and good that there's no upfront fees for agency representation, but it's the fees before you reach that point that will burn you.

Watch you step out there. It's a minefield of hidden fees and scams and questionable practices.

From The Minnow's Accounting Department

Add the three, carry the two, plus one, and the answer is $7.5. Billion.

If HM Riverdeep is allowed to acquire Reed Elsevier's Harcourt division, the newly created entity begins its life with $7.5 billion in money owed to investors. Those who have invested their retirement funds with Davy stockbrokers will of course be keen to recoup their moneys at some point down the road, and Citigroup would not care to go to its Board of Directors with a portfolio of bad loans to be written off. How will the minnow that swallowed two whales manage to keep up the payments?

HM Riverdeep expects to see savings of $70 million out of Houghton Mifflin's management. The bean counters anticipate reduced operating expenses because the merged entity can operate more efficiently as a unit than as separate companies. Just eliminating two or three executives from corner offices ought to accomplish that feat, and Riverdeep has enough high-powered leaders to take over and run things to Mr. O'Callaghan's satisfaction. No need to lay off the lower echelon of employees....

It is also believed that $100 million worth of savings can be squeezed out of Harcourt, and here again one can see how easily that much could be cut from a budget by giving the sack to the suits whose performance proved to be a disappointment to Reed Elsevier. In no time at all, operating expenses are reduced and the composite structure is leaner and faster. Think of the minnow becoming more like a shark.

After cutting out the fat, it's time to generate some profits, because that is what really pays the bills -- and the mortgage. Add the savings projected, factor in some more "revenue synergies", and you're looking at $1 billion (EBITDA). Now that's some real revenue.

HM Riverdeep is counting on Houghton Mifflin to do what they need it to do while various government entities explore the anti-trust potential of the Harcourt acquisition. The minnow has to prove to its investors that it can live up to the promises of reduced operating expenses and increased sales and revenue, and it has to accomplish this goal before the end of the year when the Harcourt sale could be finalized. The investors will be watching, nervous fingers on wallets that can be closed up tight in a flash.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

High Priced Potter

Children in England, the home of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter himself, may be hard-pressed to obtain a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It's always the children who suffer when the adults are at odds.

In America, the book will be easy to find on Wal-Mart's shelves, or at least it will be easy to find as long as copies are available. With all the excitement over this last installment in the Harry Potter series, the book will not be on the shelves for long. Travel to England, where Wal-Mart operates the Asda chain, and there may not be a single copy of Ms. Rowling's book to be had.

Wal-Mart has its own way of operating, one that involves squeezing its vendors to extract every ounce of profit. Their Asda unit is now putting the clamps on Bloomsbury, the publisher of the Harry Potter novel, and the end result is a tiff that threatens to keep the book out of Asda's bargain priced stock.

Asda has accused Bloomsbury of profiteering, because the publisher has set the price of the book at EU26.50. Profiteering or not, but British publishers have a remarkable tendency to set the price of hardcover books at astronomical levels, and that may in part explain the financial difficulties that they experience. At any rate, Asda has been screaming loud and long about the suggested retail price, which takes advantage of the demand for the new book and a parent's willingness to pay anything for something the wee little ones want so very much.

Bloomsbury has countered, stating that Asda has unpaid bills in the ledger and the publisher isn't going to ship them more stock. Hence, 500,00 copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that would have shipped will not be sent, and this only four days before the official lay-down.

People will shop at Asda whether or not the Harry Potter book is available, but will Bloomsbury manage to sell those 500,000 copies without Asda's shelf space? Or will British fans try to purchase the book on-line via Amazon.com? Considering the current rate of exchange, paying $17.99 is far cheaper than EU26.50. Is it any wonder that sales are declining for British hardcover books?

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Minnow Eats A Small Whale

And so it's official. Barry O'Callaghan has acquired Reed Elsevier's educational unit and Harcourt will be part of HM Riverdeep Group PLC at the end of this year, give or take a few months. Mr. O'Callaghan's good friend and colleague, and former head of Harcourt, will run the show. Tony Lucki will be one busy man if the deal is allowed to proceed.

The combination of Houghton Mifflin, Riverdeep and Harcourt Educational will create a mighty behemoth of educational materials. One would expect some regulatory body or other to take a close look so that Mr. O'Callaghan does not create a monopoly in the process of swallowing up these companies.

Davy Investors is going to provide $235 million in equity financing, and Credit Suisse will come up with even more capital, along with Lehman Brothers and Citi, while Reed Elsevier will hold 11.8% of the parent company. On top of some existing and hefty loans, the minnow with the hearty appetite is going to take on even more debt, to fund the acquisition that is said to be valued at $4 million.

A bold move by a bold little fish, swimming in the big pond. We all pray that Barry O'Callaghan can pull it off. Harcourt Education was in trouble to begin with, so what would have happened to it if Reed Elsevier couldn't unload it? Here's hoping that Mr. O'Callaghan proves to be a white knight, come to rescue a couple of struggling educational materials publishers.

But to suggest that T.S. Eliot or Longfellow, published by Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin in their day, would be proud that this mammoth company has been created? That's reaching a bit, isn't it?

The Minnow Considers The Dessert Menu

After spending every last penny on a substantial meal, the little minnow finds that no take-over is complete without a little sweet at the end. With that in mind, Barry O'Callaghan is said to be seriously considering a buy-out of Reed-Elsevier's educational unit. Harcourt Education would then become part of the HM Riverdeep school, lolling in the warm sun of the Cayman Islands.

One can see why Mr. O'Callaghan would be eager to acquire Harcourt Education. He went after Houghton Mifflin with an eye to creating the biggest educational publishing firm on the planet, and adding the assets of Harcourt would bring that dream closer to reality. Last April, Reed Elsevier's international education assets were acquired by Pearson, and various equity funds have been feasting on other educational publishing firms of late. There'll be no tasty tidbits left if Mr. O'Callaghan doesn't act fast.

Rumor has it that the deal could be announced very soon. The question is, how is the minnow that swallowed the whale going to pay for another acquisition that is valued at $4 billion? With Moody's rating on HM Riverdeep debt at less than comfortably safe, who will pony up more to fund the next purchase? Is this what the restructuring was all about, to free up cash reserves to cover an added expense? But where will that put the investors, who will be looking at added risk to a venture that is already risky?

The employees at Harcourt may even now be swimming for their financial lives.

Previously Published Only

More and more agents are looking for the disgruntled. Somewhere out there are authors with agents, but they're not happy about their agent's performance. For whatever reason, they haven't clicked, or the author thinks the agent is too busy to spend much time on their next project. If that describes you, then query away on your next project. If you haven't been published yet, don't even bother.

At the Ashley Grayson agency, they no longer want to hear from the great masses of writers who don't have a novel already on a shelf somewhere. It takes more time to sell something that is not a sure thing. Without a track record of sales, an author is a risk to take on. An agent could push a manuscript to every editor they know and come up empty. A lot of time and expense gets put in and nothing comes back in return. There's a limit to how much of that any agency can afford.

Al Longden left Rights Unlimited and went off on his own, but he's not looking to pick up some potential star. He wants the best he can find, so that he can make some money straight away and not have to worry about paying the rent when all the cash is going out rather than coming in. Surely there's a few authors out there who would like to switch agencies, and Mr. Longden is waiting by the phone for your call.

Wishing that someone at Jane Rotrosen's agency would take on your supremely polished debut novel? If wishes were horses, beggars would ride and you could claim the likes of Andrea Cirillo as your personal representative. This being the real world, and one that is cold and cruel, you are out of luck. Ms. Rotrosen's agency will only accept queries from those who have made the grade previously.

Not only is it getting more and more difficult to get a novel published, it's getting increasingly hard to land an agent to represent you so that you have a chance to get published.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Suspicious Bank Transactions Disclosed

In a curious incident known only to a few trusted friends, Bertie Ahern has today revealed his inadvertent involvement in a Nigerian Internet bank scam, which he believes was intended to smear his name.

It can now be reported that in March, 2005, Mr. Ahern received an e-mail from the widow of the president of the Bank of Greater Nigeria, asking for his help. Being a Christian man and a firm socialist, he contacted the distressed woman and offered his assistance. Upon the request of Mrs. Hinkadinkadoo, the taoiseach provided his bank location, so that she could lodge EU175,000 in his account to transfer the funds out of Nigeria, where her husband's life saving were under threat of confiscation by authorities. Her plan was to then emigrate to Ireland, where she could contact him to withdraw the funds for her personal use, giving Mr. Ahern 8% for his trouble.

Having failed to inform his bank that the funds were on their way, Mr. Ahern was surprised to receive a call from the Permanent TSB in Drumcondra. Indeed, he had quite forgotten about Mrs. Hinkadinkadoo, as he had not heard from her again and the matter then slipped from his mind. The sudden appearance of money raised Mr. Ahern's suspicions, and he feared that he had fallen into a trap that was intended to smear him in a most malicious way. He told bank officials that he was not expecting a lodgement of cash, and the lodgement in question could not be meant for him. Records show that the funds were then returned to a Nigerian legal firm. Their spokesman claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity, in that there are countless B. Aherns in Ireland and the cash lodgement could have been meant for one of them.

In addition, a letter purportedly issued by Deutsche Bank (Mauritius) Ltd., was sent to the Mahon Tribunal as part of their investigation of the taoiseach's finances. Mr. Ahern has stated unequivocally that he did not open an account on behalf of Ludmilla Nabakovna, widow of the Russian Oil Exploration Company CEO, who requested that Mr. Ahern help her to transfer her husband's investments of EU119,000 from Russia before authorities there seized the funds. It was pointed out that Deutsche Bank did not open its branch in Mauritius until 2004, while the letter is dated 1999, making it a clear forgery.

Mr. Ahern has declared with certainty that he is the victim of a smear campaign meant to discredit him and do him political harm. He has vowed to never again respond to any e-mail request for help with money transfers from abroad.

In another story, Mrs. Bahern Hinkadinkadoo has filed a motion in court, seeking the return of funds from Permanent TSB, Drumcondra, which she claims were to be lodged in an account that was to be opened by a Good Samaritan in Ireland. She filed a request for political asylum two years ago, but the matter has yet to come up before an overburdened justice system.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bailed Out

But not for long. His Lordship is allowed to stay on at his luxurious suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago's most posh neighborhood, after he was bailed out with his wife's diamond ring as collateral. Conrad Black has been found guilty of using a corporation as his private piggy-bank, to fund a lavish lifestyle on the backs of the little people he trod on so carelessly.

When Hollinger took over the Chicago Sun-Times, a round of cuts sliced through the newspaper and left many blue collar workers out of jobs. The sackings touched on the white collar crew as well, with staff reporter positions eliminated, while those who remained were expected to pick up the slack. There was a great deal of grumbling all across the city, and the jurors may not have forgotten those days.

That Mr. Black would bill his corporation for tropical paradise interludes or his wife's party did not resonate with the jurors. If the big shots sitting on the board were too dense to notice, well, that's typical isn't it? They figured it out eventually, and tossed Mr. Black off the board. But the people who worked for Hollinger International, the ones who feared losing their jobs as profit shortfalls threatened bottom lines and further cuts, could not do anything about management beyond going elsewhere and starting over. The dogs in the street know that's not so easy to do, especially if one is employed in a shrinking industry.

Mr. Black would like to go home to Toronto to await sentencing and the start of the never-ending appeals. The prosecution believes that he's a flight risk and should be sitting in a cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center until court resumes in a couple of weeks.

The mighty has fallen, but it's a mighty snob that's been taken down a peg, and that's why the commoners are snickering with rude glee. What comes next? Will the House of Lords seek to erase a peerage when it's held by a convicted extortionist and racketeer?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Tickets Available For Barbara Streisand

If you've always dreamed of seeing Barbara Streisand perform live, and your heart is set on seeing Ireland before you die, the perfect opportunity has arisen.

Ms. Streisand does not have quite as many fans in Ireland as she might have liked. Right now, tickets are available for the Saturday concert, and they are going at cut-rate prices on E-bay, where front row seats valued at EU550 each went for EU163. If you're not comfortable with auctions, you can still get seats through Ticketmaster.

The concert will be staged at Castletown House in Kildare, which is essentially a suburb of Dublin if you take urban sprawl into consideration. And if you go, be sure to pack your rain gear as showers are expected and it's an outdoor venue. It's Ireland. Showers are always expected.

A clever travel agent could probably whip up a lovely itinerary in no time, and you could accomplish two of your life's goals in one trip, and still have enough money left over to buy a round at a charming little rural pub as you drive through the Vale of Avoca. Wouldn't Ms. Streisand appreciate your efforts to fill the house?

Delete Does Not Mean Deleted

Texting is more popular in Europe than it is in the States. People text message one another constantly, sort of like dropping a little note or firing off a quick postcard. Just wanted to say hello. See you L8R. Love You. You're everything to me.

You read it, you delete it, it's done. Except that the text message or the voice mail or the e-mail is not really gone away. It continues to exist in some vast electronic database, where those in authority, some organization like An Garda Siochana, for example, can listen to it long after you think it's been deleted.

"The affair was over," said Joe O'Reilly, after he finally admitted to detectives that he was indeed having an affair. His wife had just been murdered, so of course he wouldn't admit he was seeing another woman. Looks very bad, that sort of thing. Once caught in the lie, he adjusted his story and told detectives that the affair was over.

Earlier in the week, some e-mails that Mr. O'Reilly sent to his sister were presented in court. She of course thought that after reading them and erasing them, they were gone. In fact, the e-mails continued to exist, messages that put a lie to Mr. O'Reilly's assertions that his marriage was solid. Stating that his wife disgusted him would hardly point to a solid, loving relationship.

In the courtroom yesterday, where the Rachel O'Reilly murder trial continues, Sgt. Michael Gubbins read out transcripts of text and voice messages that passed between Joe O'Reilly and Nikki Pelley, the other woman in the case. Lovely sentiments expressed therein...Love you... Miss and love you...my beautiful bride to be.

That "bride to be" business was texted on 5 September, not too long before Rachel O'Reilly was found dead in her home. Hardly the stuff of an ended affair, but then again, Joe O'Reilly believed that hitting the delete key erased the evidence that is now being piled ever higher on his head. As it turns out, the evidence is all still there, in stark contrast to the many lies and obfuscations that he thought would cloud the picture.

Something to keep in mind if you're writing a murder mystery and are looking for a clever way for the cops to crack the case.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Off On A Tangent

The Mahon Tribunal has been examining all sorts of dicey deals that took place ten years ago, looking for pay-to-play bribes and the like. Now they've run off on a tangent, taking them far afield from the original purpose. Is it any wonder that these tribunals go on for ages and cost a small fortune?

Somehow or other, the Irish Times acquired a bit of information that came from the secret sessions of the tribunal, and the editor decided to publish them. Ms. Geraldine Kennedy felt that the story was worth running back in September, implicating the taoiseach in a very suspicious set of payments when he was Minister of Finance.

What the tribunal ponders is not on the record until they finish, at which time they put things on the record that apply to their decision. They were not at all finished with the whole Bertie Ahern payments issue, so when the story broke, the tribunal wanted to know who had spilled the beans.

Colm Keena, the author of the piece, refused to divulge his sources as he wished to protect a vital informant who wanted to remain hidden. That's traditionally been a correspondent's prerogative, to not reveal identities so that they can get the story that otherwise would not be told. It's for the public good, in the long run, to allow secrets to be uncovered without harming those who would otherwise be afraid to speak out.

Unfortunately, the former Minister of State declared that it was the tribunal itself that allowed some unsavory tidbits to be leaked, in an effort to harm the re-election efforts of both Mr. Ahern and Fianna Fail. Well, the Mahon Tribunal isn't having any of that, to besmirch their august selves, and they mean to get to the bottom of it. Not satisfied with Noel Treacy's explanation of how he came to claim that the tribunal was leaking, they've gone after the newspaper to tell them where the story came from.

Protecting his sources, Mr. Keena refused to speak, and Ms. Kennedy backed up her reporter. Now the tribunal is making some very loud and rude noises, threatening to take the Irish Times to the High Court and charging correspondent and editor with contempt. What next, will the news people be tossed into the 'Joy to see if mucking out their cells every morning will bring about a change of mind? And for what? To force someone else to prove that the tribunal is above board?

Apparently, Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Keena have little or no confidence in Irish jurisprudence. The documents and paperwork that were used to craft the September news article were shredded after the tribunal ordered them turned over. All that remains of the source's identity is inside the memories of two people who refuse to recollect.

There's another tool in the Irish Times arsenal that may yet be wielded. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword, and a bit more persuasive than a court order when it comes to rallying support in the court of public opinion.

Do They Not Read Their Mail?

I have sent a query to Anne Edelstein in the past, and it took a long time to get a rejection, but it came. Not any more, apparently. The query that was snail-mailed in February. complete with its requisite twenty-five page sample, has gone unnoticed and ignored. No SASE to brighten my empty letter bin.

Even Elaine Markson is too busy to respond. Besides, the query was sent in January, so the stamp wouldn't cover the postage any more.

Over at McIntosh & Otis, they might be willing to accept a query, but don't count on Elizabeth Winick to answer. No reply is a no, but precedent was set long ago. Enclose a SASE and the agent will respond, normally in the negative, but you'll have an answer. These days, the precedent is forgotten in a bid to save time or save the cost of administrative assistants who once stuffed SASEs with abandon.

No one's home at Jane Rotrosen's agency. Snail mail to Kelly Harms has been ignored, or lost, or eaten by the postman. Not accepting queries? Could you not send the SASE back with a rubber-stamped 'No', or just the empty envelope would suffice. I picture the office, where sacks of mail come in, the return addresses scouted for those of current clients, and the rest getting tossed in the dumpster out back. Someone could make a fortune in recycled envelopes and unused stamps if they were clever.

Melanie Jackson no longer responds to snail mail queries. Too high powered, perhaps, or possessed of enough lucrative clients to keep the doors closed. Then there's Harold Schmidt, a man looking for unconventional fiction. He doesn't return SASEs, however. Alex Glass over at Trident Media Group is another one who feels that a no reply is a no.

If you're waiting on any of them, checking your mail every day so that you can move on, well, don't hold your breath. There's a new rule in town, where rudeness is a way of life. The RSVP has died, and Regrets Only has fallen out of favor as well. You just don't know if your letter was received or misdirected, if the literary agent even saw it, or if they have your name in some industry-wide database. Jaysus, it's another one, the literary agent groans, and you'll never get another query letter past the door.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Top Rung On God's Ladder

Of course the Roman Catholic Church is number one. You don't need a Pope to state the obvious.

Now the Most Reverend John Neill of the Church of Ireland has his knickers in a knot. He thinks that his religion has "full apostolic succession" but a good Catholic would point out that King Henry (the eighth of that name) interposed his sizable self in the line. The Pope can trace his job all the way back to St. Peter and Jesus Himself, in an unbroken succession. Therefore, it's the Catholics that are the one true faith that was started up two thousand years ago, and the rest of the Christian world is a bunch of posers.

There is dismay in the halls of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Presbyterian Church would like it known that it is the Catholic Church, not them, that is in error. There's no error at all, at all. The Catholics have claimed the top of the religious charts and they're number one with a bullet for all times. Upon my rock, and all that, and only Pope Benedict can say with conviction that he's a chip off that same rock.

Where else do the Proties fall short? They lack a sacramental priesthood, they've botched the "substance of the Eucharistic Mystery" by going about things their own way and not following Catholic doctrine, so they've no right to call themselves "'Churches' in the proper sense".

The thing about all this is that it's nothing new. This has been policy all along, back to the first split between the Roman crowd and the crew in Constantinople. As for continuing dialogue between religious beliefs, that hasn't change either. The Catholic Church is more than willing to talk and hash out differences. And their reason for talk hasn't varied either. Come back into the fold, oh prodigal Protestant, and all will be forgiven. See the error of your ways and return to the original church.

It's all about who has the most sheep in the fold, and who is the very best of the Good Shepherds. And no one likes having their ego bruised.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Undone By Technology

Rachel O'Reilly was found dead in the bedroom of her home by her mother, back in 2004. The woman had been beaten and strangled, but who would murder a suburban housewife?

It took a long time, but eventually detectives made a case against Rachel's husband, Joe. Of course, they'd look to the husband first, but isn't that always how they begin? However, Joe had an alibi, he was at work, far from the house, over in Bluebell. Didn't know who would want to kill such a lovely woman, but the marriage was grand and he wasn't the one who done it.

Rachel had been buried for some time when gardai received a tip. Joe had put a letter into Rachel's coffin at the removal. Her boys had put letters in as well, and friends sent her off with packs of ciggies and cards. Except that the letter from Joe was said to be a confession. The sod had just begun to grow back over Rachel O'Reilly's grave when it was opened again.

Dead bodies placed in sealed coffins will decompose, but the anaerobic bacteria that go to work have a tendency to liquify things. The letter that was retrieved was described as "heavily soiled" and could not be brought into court as it was considered a biohazard, but forensics used modern technology to read what Joe wrote.

Joe O'Reilly denied that he was having an affair until he could deny it no longer. Hard to refute evidence that's clear cut. And then yesterday, Mr. Oliver Farrell testified that the cell phone Mr. O'Reilly had admitted to having in his possession did not follow the same route as the one the accused had described to detectives.

Telephone towers are remarkable feats of engineering, carrying signals but sending their own signals to mobile phones to find out where they are. You don't like calls being dropped, do you, and the tall masts keep an eye, so to speak, on your phone and where it's going so that the call can transfer from tower to tower as you motor along. Bad news for Joe O'Reilly, as the service provider keeps records for each phone and each call and each tower that handled the call.

When Joe said he was going left, the cell phone records show that he went right. He said he was far from home when Rachel was murdered, but his phone was very close to home, and at the time that the murder took place.

Sure and the devil's in the details. It's the little things that trip you up every time.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Debt-Laden Minnow

The trip to the Cayman Islands is a done deal, with today's board meeting a formality to rubber-stamp the decision. The minnow will relocate to a country that does not tax business profits, even though HM Riverdeep says it will maintain its tax base in Ireland. The bloated little fish is going south so that the shareholders can recoup a bit of cash.

A dividend recapitalisation is used to fund an acquisition, or it can be used to provide a special dividend for investors. Under Irish law, HM Riverdeep would only be allowed to pay out a dividend if there was a real profit, an income after expenses positive bottom line source of funding. Under Caymans law, the dividend can be made through debt financing, but HM Riverdeep is already so deep in the hole that it seems far-fetched to imagine Credite Suisse or Citigroup coming up with even more money. Who will be paying for this dividend recap?

As Barry O'Callaghan owns 25% of HM Riverdeep, he stands to get the biggest dividend, and the clients of Davy Investments will get their cut, although it may not be quite what they were expecting, having been told that they would double their money in a couple of years.

Debt piled on debt, rather than the promised synergies and cost cuts? The sharp pencils at Moody's may be tempted to lower HM Riverdeep's value even further, unless the company can deliver as promised. Or is the minnow positioning itself as a mighty whale, a prime target for someone else to capture, before its value sinks to the bottom?

Employees of Houghton Mifflin may not much care, as long as someone keeps signing their paychecks every week and the checks keep clearing the bank.

Fading Into Insignificance

They used to march along the Garvaghy Road, beating their drums, triumphant. The Protestants were still in the ascendancy in Portadown, and the members of the Orange Lodge were sure to remind the nationalists of that very fact. Every year for 200 years, bowler-hatted and orange-sashed, they paraded their sectarianism.

Ten years ago, the powers that were in the north of Ireland figured out that rioting and violence could be averted if the Orange Order was not allowed to parade down the Garvaghy Road, where the Catholics and the Shinners were ready to meet them with bricks and bottles. Policing such hotspots cost a great deal of money, and there was a tremendous savings to be had by blocking the road. And so, in 1998, a barricade went up and the Orange Order was told to go around.

Every Sunday since 1998, members of the Portadown Orange Lodge have gone up to where the barricade sits and have made a protest about not being allowed to proceed through the Catholic part of town. They have their rights, after all, to behave idiotically, and how dare the government deny them free access?

The Drumcree parade, once the watchword for sectarianism and violence, passed off yesterday amidst a radically changed world. The DUP is sitting in government with Sinn Fein, and there were hardly any police monitoring the parade route. The British Army was noticeably absent, as were any protesting Shinners. No one much noticed the lodge members at the barricade, where they postured and puffed up with importance.

They protested the barrier for ten years, but their cries went unanswered. They still want to parade down the Garvaghy Road, but the new devolved government has told the lodge to go talk to the Parades Commission if they have a problem. As far as the Parades Commission is concerned, the lodge can march wherever they like, as long as the residents say it's all right. But the residents won't be bothered talking with the lodge, so where does that put them?

Darryl Hewitt of the Portadown Orange Lodge lodged a protest at the barricade yesterday, in the midst of a lashing rain. Here I am, he said, to talk to the residents and iron out our differences. So who's not willing to talk now? It used to be us, the Orange Order, and now the Catholics aren't willing to bend.

The Catholics simply don't care. Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd said that talks could start now that the parade ended peacefully, but they have to wait on the appointment of a mediator and these things take time.

Mr. Hewitt stood at the barricade yesterday and postured grandly, proclaiming that he was there to talk, after ten years, and since the Catholics weren't there waiting on him, well, it's all their fault, then, isn't it? Where are they now?

Armagh played Derry in County Monaghan on Sunday, while Mr. Hewitt was making himself available for talks. Obviously, the football match was a higher priority. Some other time, perhaps, Mr. Hewitt?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Let The Host Do The Washing-Up

"Can I lend a hand?" the guest asked.

The dinner party had been splendid, with good food, good wine and good company. Didier was in need of some good company these days, what with his wife walking out on him. Alone in the empty house, he was reaching out to his friends and they were there for him. No one brought up the whereabouts of Chantal, who had disappeared with her son, left Verviers and never looked back.

"Cling film?" she inquired.

"Just there, under the cutlery," Didier said.

Chantal had been making noise about getting a divorce a few weeks ago. She said she was scared half out of her wits by Didier when he'd had a few. You could see how he might get violent, especially if the drink took hold of his senses. He was prone to argue with her all the time, but he didn't want to break up with her either. Funny, that. Not getting along very well, but not willing to call it a day either.

She stretched the plastic film over the bowl of pommes-frites that would serve well in an omelet the next day. Peering into the refrigerator, the guest realized that there was no room for a single frite, let alone the bowl. Even careful rearrangement would not yield enough space. Freezing the cooked potatoes was not the best option, but Didier had a large freezer in his utility closet and freezing was better than throwing away perfectly good food.

"Didier, I believe I have found Chantal and Bryan," the guest announced. "They are here in your freezer. I don't think I can squeeze this bowl of pommes-frites in after all."

"Well, we did argue a lot," Didier said. "My neighbors have been complaining about me for years, about my aggressive behavior towards them."

"If you don't mind, I'll just run screaming to the authorities. And then I shall get counseling because I am quite traumatized by this discovery."

"As well you might be. But it's a small house, and there just wasn't anyplace else to put them. You know that dead bodies give off a powerful aroma if not kept frozen."

"Quite right you are, Didier, but I don't think I shall ever be able to open a freezer again. Nor shall I ever touch another pomme-frite."

"You should perhaps not have offered to help with the washing-up," Didier observed.

Didier Charron has not yet made a confession, but he will be remanded into custody while Georges Lahaye of the Verviers public prosecutor's office puts a case together. Chantal Charron and her son Bryan were apparently stabbed to death.

A Repeat Performance

Things are going from bad to worse for dancer Michael Flatley these days. He won the case against the woman who was trying to extort money from him, and her lawyer was disbarred in the process. All good, you'd say, but now the action has moved to Europe and the Lord of the Dance is dodging legal summonses right and left.

Hot on the heels of court action in London, brought by Martin Flitton, Mr. Flatley is now on the verge of being sued in Dublin by his former publicist. Geraldine Roche is getting some legal advice and will doubtless be encouraged to proceed.

Makes sense that Ms. Roche is now the "former" publicist, having broken off with the man with legs insured for $40 million last January. There has been an ongoing dispute over fees, to the wild tune of Eu250,000. That is a lot of money, not even taking into account the current exchange rate. That would be the equivalent of some high-priced publicist not getting paid for years.

Mr. Flatley has a new spokeswoman, who had no comment about the latest legal trouble for the dancer. She also had no comment about the action in the London courts, where Mr. Flitton is trying to recoup Eu600,000 in fees that he says are owed and Mr. Flatley disputes. Unlike the earlier case in Illinois, where the attorney for the prosecution was incompetent, Mr. Flitton has signed on with the firm of Mishcon de Reya. They are perhaps best known for representing the late Diana, Princess of Wales, in her divorce proceedings.

Makes you wonder if the missus is behind it, nagging at the Feet of Flames, telling him he's been cheated by the spongers and he's well rid of them and don't be paying them, he doesn't owe them anything. He wasn't having this kind of legal trouble before he got married, was he?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Barak As War-Mongerer

It's on the pages of the Irish Times. In his own words. Barak Obama wants to end the war in Iraq....and go after the entire Middle East. Get ready, Shannon Airport, because there's going to be a steady stream of soldiers stopping by. Lay in a hefty supply of tea bags.

He's aware of the dangers of rogue states and terrorists and rising powers who challenge America. Those terrorists come from weak states that can't control them. Oh, and terrorism is due to global warming as well, because a warmer planet will spawn new diseases and devastating disasters and cause deadly conflicts. Scientific evidence has pointed to a flourishing of new species during periods of global warming, but that hardly fits the scenario being painted, now, does it?

But is your man pessimistic? None of it. He sees a call to action. We all know what that means. War of course. Anything else would be sitting around like a bunch of lazy sots.

When Barak is in the White House, he's going to promise the world that the US doesn't want permanent bases in Iraq, like the ones that were put in place in Europe to keep an eye on the Soviets and contain the spread of communism. No indeed, he won't have any of that to keep an eye on the jihadists and prevent their spread. And why is that? Because he's going resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as that's the source of the problem.

He still believes that the unresolved issue is the Palestinian state business. The fact that the jihadists call for the formation of a world-wide caliphate under Sharia law must have fallen on his deaf ears. But he's hearing the Iranians loud and clear. Tough-minded diplomacy will clean up the Persian mess, and he's including military power in his list of tools to bring Iran and Syria into line.

Mr. Obama plans to revitalize the military, to "put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale." Does that sound like a man who's going to pull back to America's shores and keep the soldiers confined to barracks?

We'll leave Iraq and go into Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. Barak Obama is talking all-out war, on a wide scale. And his supporters think he's all about peace in the Middle East.

Don't Look Under The Rug

The Irish Farmers Association has gotten itself into trouble with the EU Health Commission. Looking under the rug in Brazil, those farmers, and showing everyone how much unhealthy dust was hidden there, to the consternation of Markos Kyprianou.

If one were a beef producer in Ireland, one would be most interested in dishing the dirt on one's competitors, such as beef exporters in Brazil who can dump their meat on the market dirt cheap. The IFA did their own investigation of beef production practices in Brazil, to show that the exported product was shite on a stick, but that's the purview of the EU and get your Irish noses out of the EU's business, said the EU.

Health Commissioner Kyprianou's spokesperson does not believe that the IFA visited farms that are part of the EU export system, so the IFA could not of course have anything to add to the current assessment of Brazil's application to export beef to the EU. Looking in the wrong places, it would seem, and please don't imagine that the unacceptable beef would ever get into the export system.

What did the IFA find on its grand tour of Brazilian beef producing facilities? Enough for the association to recommend that Brazilian beef be banned from Europe. According to the report, they uncovered a lack of controls in place to trace cattle. That gets to be of critical importance when a case of BSE appears and all animals exposed to the deadly disease must be culled. Every head of cattle is tagged where good records are kept, but such was not the case in Brazil. There was no apparent control over cattle being trucked in from neighboring countries, so that steers speaking Spanish could be mixed in with their Portuguese-speaking brethren and then the Europeans really wouldn't know what they were getting in their Irish stew. To cap it all, the IFA discovered that growth promoting hormones banned in the EU are used in Brazil.

So the EU would like the Irish farmers to butt out, but in the meantime, the Health Commission has a few glitches to iron out with Brazil. They are aware of delays in implementing certain practices that are required of all exporters, and they are not pleased that the cattle tagging program has yet to be fully implemented. But how dare the Irish go and find even more problems.

The IFA is supporting their own, of course, but they have brought up an important point. If you don't know where your meat came from, can you really be sure that it's safe to eat? Do you trust some EU commission, when they're either hiding things from the public, or unaware of the nasty things that have been swept under the rug while Brazil did a bit of cursory housekeeping.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Subscription Offer

Multipurpose rejection from Cream City Review -- won't be publishing the short story, sorry, but how about subscribing?

They offer a discount to writers who have contributed to their journal. Do they not understand that writers who contribute to their journal are scraping to cover the costs of the submission? I really can't justify spending $22 for a year of the review, when that same amount of money will cover submissions to other journals that just might pick up the story.

Thanks for the offer, but if you'd accepted the short story and paid me for it, I'd be able to subscribe. I will submit again, but I won't be enclosing the multipurpose rejection slip with my choice of 1 year or 2 years indicated. Nor can I make a donation. That's the problem with writers. They usually don't have any money for luxuries like subscriptions to literary journals.

Rough Seas

A man walks into a pub......

No, not that old joke. In this case, a man walked up to a house off the coast of Cork and asked the occupant to ring up the Coast Guard. His boat had tipped over, and his friend was still out in the water, in need of help. The man was soaked through, said he had swum to safety, and it sounded like a reasonable story.

The Coast Guard scrambled and found the unfortunate boater.....along with a tonne of cocaine.

Gardai found another pair of middle-aged gents trying to run through fields to get away, but even a young man would have had a hard go of it. They are also under arrest.

As best as can be pieced together, the men in the overturned dinghy were involved in a smuggling operation in which boats from South America would approach isolated areas of the Irish coast. The drugs, nicely wrapped up in waterproof bundles, would be off-loaded onto inflatable boats and brought ashore for distribution. Unfortunately for the criminal gang, they were working in rough seas and one of the gang took pity on his drowning mate and brought the whole thing crashing down.

The thoughtful drug smuggler has given a false name, which was traced to a child that died shortly after birth. The man's Irish passport was just as false, as was the name of the British solicitors who supposedly obtained it for him. Further investigation revealed that a group of men, including those now under arrest, rented a house on the Sheep's Head peninsula and told everyone they were going diving. A search of the house revealed a trove of satellite and navigation equipment, which would certainly come in handy when one is trying to locate a small ship stuffed to the gunwales with drugs.

Gardai are talking to their colleagues in England, Spain, South Africa and the US, to figure out who exactly they have in hand and who else might be involved. There will be a lot of questions asked in the coming weeks, and a large drug smuggling ring will come to an end as a result.

And all because one man was kind enough to seek help for a friend who could not swim.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Minnow Swims South

Next Monday, Barry O'Callaghan and his school of little fishes will hold an extraordinary general meeting to inform their stockholders that they are swimming to the Cayman Islands. Ireland is too cold for the minnow, and the warmth of the financial climate in the Caymans will do the minnow a world of good.

HM Riverdeep is going to be restructured. In search of those elusive synergies, perhaps, which would reduce the debt burden. The plan is to liquidate subsidiaries to gain $1.89 billion worth of assets. Michael McAteer has been brought on board to wind up Houghton Mifflin Riverdeep Group Holdings, Ltd. and Houghton Mifflin Riverdeep Ltd, to send some cash downstream to the part of HM Riverdeep that is high and dry.

The assets of HM Riverdeep will be transferred to Education Media and Publishing Group, where Mr. O'Callaghan will enjoy far less scrutiny than he endured in Dublin. Best of all, it will be easier for the company to make distributions to investors....that would be Mr. O'Callaghan and his colleagues, would it not?

Why make the move now, one might ask? According to a spokeswoman for HM Riverdeep, the merged entity had an "unwieldy structure" and the company wanted to "create distributable reserves in order to be in a position to do a dividend recap and return capital to shareholders."

Who are the shareholders? Mr. O'Callaghan, for the most part, and he's clearly trying to recoup some of his investment in HM Riverdeep. With the Cayman Islands best known for shady business deals and dodgy bank investments, it is looking more and more like the minnow is choking on the whale.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Do You Know Who I Am?

A dude with a 'tude, that's what Mohammed Asha was as far as Simon Plant could judge. He owned the little house in Newcastle-Under-Lyme that Dr. Asha rented. Condescending is how Mr. Plant described his model tenant. And worried about racism.

Dr. Asha was considered a brilliant student in Jordan, when he was in medical school. He was so studious, in fact, that his professor had to urge him to put down his books and go have some fun. Yet when Dr. Asha arrived in England to practice medicine, he was not accorded the same deference as he had garnered in Jordan. Hence, he saw racism. The English people he brushed up against saw a snob with his Arabic nose up in the air, looking down on them. Expected to have his arse kissed on a regular basis, that one. They saw a bad attitude and they chose to avoid him.

Mrs. Asha lived like a Jordanian woman, but the problem was, she was living in England, in a community with few Moslems. She walked about in a hijab, and hid upstairs when workmen came to fix things at the house. She saw racism. Her English neighbors saw a somewhat odd creature and they examined her and some probably felt sorry for her. That hijab was a mark of oppression, of keeping women under a man's thumb, and the ladies in the town felt that they had nothing in common with her so they didn't mingle.

Dr. Asha was thin-skinned, it was said by Jordanians who knew him. Didn't take kindly to criticism. Didn't control his short temper very well. So he went and threw a temper tantrum, trying to blow up a couple of nail and petrol filled cars, and when that didn't work, he really showed them. He drove a car into Glasgow Airport's main terminal and tried to burn the place down.

Do you know who I am? You are no better than anyone else when you move into a culture that is radically different than your own. Do you know who I am? You are someone so wrapped up in self-importance that you will not bend to fit into your host country. You are someone so conceited that you cannot endure being treated as an equal in a democratic society that is far less based on class than the place from which you came.

Do you know who I am? You are a terrorist, determined to change the world so that you will be perched on the top, because you believe that you are somehow special. Now, you are a common criminal, and you will be perched in a jail cell. In hindsight, wouldn't it have been better if you had stomped up and down or held your breath until you turned blue?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Readers of Discrimination

Tough, tough, tough and even more difficult to get works of literary fiction published. The idiots who buy books want entertainment, for feck's sake, and the mindless wonders who populate this earth don't know that they should be reading literary fiction and seeking out edification. Indeed, they prove their utter lack of sophistication by not living in New York City. Thank you, yes, I will take another glass of wine. This pinot noir is sensational. Lovely, the hint of cherry, yet not overly fruity. What were we talking about, again?

Author Martha Southgate goes to literary soirees and finds that she is the only woman of color present, not counting the Pakis and the Hindus, of a certain age, that being middle. Where are the forty-something and fifty-something black authors like Martha Southgate? Why are there not African-American Michael Chabons or Jane Smileys?

Malaika Adero, who is an editor at Atria Books, believes that the publishers don't push literary fiction written by those possessed of dark American skin. Book vendors don't order the books because they are not being promoted, so readers don't know about them and therefore they don't get sold and the publishers look at the numbers and it's a downward spiral. You don't sell through, you don't get another book published; sic transit gloria.

Au contraire, says Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic. The industry is looking for good, marketable work, the writing trumps all, and that manuscript your agent sends him is colorblind, is it not? Read between his lines, and it sounds as if black folks can't write good books, which is why there are so few of them out there. On the other hand, the Jewish Book Network is highly successful, and there's no equivalent for African American writers to heavily promote. Maybe therein lies the problem, and things would be far more rosy if Operation Push stepped up and came to the aid of black authors in America. I am....a reader. I may be poor, but I am....a reader.

Once published, do black writers go on to live on the pig's back? Ms. Southgate is less than pleased that this is not the case. Why, African-American writers have to juggle families! They don't have a financial cushion to fall on so that they can quit their day jobs and go off to write. It's discrimination that keeps them from becoming full time writers.

Anyone who believes that writers can make a living at writing has a most vivid and fertile imagination. Black, white, brown, red or green, writers work other jobs and write on the side because there's simply no money in the art. There's no discrimination, but there is a reality that is decidedly unpleasant, especially when a budding author's dreams of the bohemian life are crushed by the paltry advance and the minuscule royalties. Those that can (make a living at writing) do, those that can't, teach (creative writing at universities across the nation).