The $475,000 dog house

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The $475,000 dog house is but one sign of what went wrong with our own late, great Guilded Age of architecture

The recent era of egregious consumer and corporate excess, now crashing down around our ears, is leaving behind many architectural reminders of itself. But for sheer egregiousness, few will ever beat a new residence being built near the English town of Cirencester.

It’s a $475,000 dog house.

Designed by British architect Andy Ramos, this residence will shelter a pair of Great Danes belonging to a surgeon, whose own luxurious house is to be constructed nearby.

The kennel details, as reported by the London-based Mail on Sunday newspaper, are fascinating.

The three-room dog house (two bedrooms and a lounge) will be outfitted with temperature-controlled sheepskin beds, a spa, an expensive hi-fi system, and a 52-inch plasma television set.

A retina scan at the entrance will enable the owner to keep out dogs who might try to pay unauthorized visits to the Great Danes. Closed-circuit TV cameras will provide the owner with round-the-clock surveillance of the dogs’ comings and goings between their house and their adventure playground.

A spokesman for the exclusive real estate development where the dog house will stand told The Mail: “People can design their own homes and this is a bit eccentric but it’s really nice that someone appreciates their pets as much as this lady does. She’s designed their quarters with all their needs at the fore.”

It would be easy, of course, to laugh off Mr. Ramos’s dog house as another folly of the extravagant age we live (or lived) in, then forget about the matter. If, that is, the pooch palace were merely an isolated architectural instance of some rich person’s silliness. It’s not.

Since the outset of the financial boom late in the last century, the landscapes of city and country (and the pages of the architecture magazines) have been littered with over-the-top residential extravaganzas that, despite their usually huge, overscaled size, are very often puny in artistic inspiration and ambition. The dog house is one example. There are many others.

But look-at-me, ostentatious bloat is only one part of the problem. There’s the issue of our period style, which has largely been a kind of imitative bombast.

Instead of encouraging innovative solutions to the old problem of housing, nouveau-riche clients in Britain and North America put architects to work designing lifeless, inflated pastiches of country homes in Georgian, French provincial or some other supposedly “aristocratic” manner. Everything got recycled into the new rural products — ponderous columns, architraves and pediments and entablature and the other bric-a-brac of classicism — but the results rarely sang with the elegance and flair of the originals.

Hitting the cities, the impact of this parody of ye-olde styles has been especially unfortunate. Take a drive through Toronto’s Forest Hill or York Mills or any other well-off neighbourhood in the city to see what I’m talking about. Hulking monster homes mar the streetscapes of modest Edwardian buildings (in Forest Hill) or spacious, mid-20th-century bungalows (in York Mills).

Massive, pretentious facades cobbled from remnants in the Tudor or Elizabethan or Georgian scrapyard glower out at pleasant streets that ask to be lined (and were, at least until the monster houses began to intrude) by far more retiring residences.

But if the latter-day crop of millionaires and billionaires have turned out to be aficionados of the overblown, it’s not possible to draw a necessary connection between wealth and bad taste.

The grandees of the old Georgian period (roughly 1714-1830, during the reigns of the British Georges I-IV) patronized the most advanced and intelligent architects of the day, who provided them with magnificent country seats and city mansions.

Frank Lloyd Wright was wildly successful among rich American businessmen, and even the radical Le Corbusier, a few decades later in Europe, found numerous rich private clients for his splendid experiments in residential architecture.

So what went wrong in the Gilded Age of our own century? I think it was a fateful convergence of the enormous growth of personal wealth, a widespread lack of constraint — the same failure of personal discipline and acceptance of limits that has fuelled the current economic crisis — and contempt for the human scale and visual fabric of the city, especially its streetscapes and the rhythms of its ordinary built forms.

This summing-up of the situation is, I know, a minority position, and many will disagree with it. If you think there is nothing wrong with constructing a dog house for half a million dollars, or dropping an ugly Tudor castle-gate on one of Toronto’s quiet Edwardian streets, I certainly could never convince you otherwise. But it may well be that the years of building such things are now over, and I, for one, am not sorry to see them go.

by JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
From Friday’s Globe and Mail
E-mail
December 5, 2008

Iceland – When an entire Country goes Bankrupt

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Stunned Icelanders Struggle After Economy’s Fall
By SARAH LYALL
November 9, 2008

REYKJAVIK, Iceland – The collapse came so fast it seemed unreal, impossible. One woman here compared it to being hit by a train. Another said she felt as if she were watching it through a window. Another said, “It feels like you’ve been put in a prison, and you don’t know what you did wrong.”

This country, as modern and sophisticated as it is geographically isolated, still seems to be in shock. But if the events of last month – the failure of Iceland’s banks; the plummeting of its currency; the first wave of layoffs; the loss of reputation abroad – felt like a bad dream, Iceland has now awakened to find that it is all coming true.

It is not as if Reykjavik, where about two-thirds of the country’s 300,000 people live, is filled with bread lines or homeless shanties or looters smashing store windows. But this city, until recently the center of one of the world’s fastest economic booms, is now the unhappy site of one of its great crashes. It is impossible to meet anyone here who has not been profoundly affected by the financial crisis.

Overnight, people lost their savings. Prices are soaring. Once-crowded restaurants are almost empty. Banks are rationing foreign currency, and companies are finding it dauntingly difficult to do business abroad. Inflation is at 16 percent and rising. People have stopped traveling overseas. The local currency, the krona, was 65 to the dollar a year ago; now it is 130. Companies are slashing salaries, reducing workers’ hours and, in some instances, embarking on mass layoffs.

“No country has ever crashed as quickly and as badly in peacetime,” said Jon Danielsson, an economist with the London School of Economics.

The loss goes beyond the personal, shattering a proud country’s sense of itself.

“Years ago, I would say that I was Icelandic and people might say, ‘Oh, where’s that?’ ” said Katrin Runolfsdottir, 49, who was fired from her secretarial job on Oct. 31. “That was fine. But now there’s this image of us being overspenders, thieves.”

Aldis Nordfjord, a 53-year-old architect, also lost her job last month. So did all 44 of her co-workers – everyone in the company except its owners. As many as 75 percent of Iceland’s private-sector architects have probably been fired in the past few weeks, she said.

In a strange way, she said, it is comforting to be one in a crowd. “Everyone is in the same situation,” she said. “If you can imagine, if only 10 out of 40 people had been fired, it would have been different; you would have felt, ‘Why me? Why not him?’ ”

Until last spring, Iceland’s economy seemed white-hot. It had the fourth-highest gross domestic product per capita in the world. Unemployment hovered between 0 and 1 percent (while forecasts for next spring are as high as 10 percent). A 2007 United Nations report measuring life expectancy, real per-capita income and educational levels identified Iceland as the world’s best country in which to live.

Emboldened by the strong krona, once-frugal Icelanders took regular shopping weekends in Europe, bought fancy cars and built bigger houses paid for with low-interest loans in foreign currencies.

Like the Vikings of old, Icelandic bankers were roaming the world and aggressively seizing business, pumping debt into a soufflé of a system. The banks are the ones that cannot repay tens of billions of dollars in foreign debt, and “they’re the ones who ruined our reputation,” said Adalheidur Hedinsdottir, who runs a small chain of coffee shops called Kaffitar and sells coffee wholesale to stores.

There was so much work, employers had to import workers from abroad. Ms. Nordfjord, the architect, worked so much overtime last year that she doubled her salary. She was featured on a Swedish radio program as an expert on Iceland’s extraordinary building boom.

Two months ago, her company canceled all overtime. Two weeks ago, it acknowledged that work was slowing. But it promised that there would be enough to last through next summer.

The next day, everyone was herded into a conference room and fired.

Employers are hurting just as much as employees. Ms. Hedinsdottir has laid off seven part-time employees, cut full-time workers’ hours and raised prices. The Kaffitar branch on Reykjavik’s central shopping street was perhaps half full; in normal times, it would have been bursting at its seams.

While business is dwindling, costs are soaring. When the government took over the country’s failing banks in October, Ms. Hedinsdottir’s latest shipment of coffee – more than 109,000 pounds – was already on the water, en route from Nicaragua. She had the money to pay for it, but because the crisis made foreign banks leery of doing business with Iceland, she said, she was unable to convert enough cash into foreign currency.

“They were calling me every day and asking me what the situation was, and they got really nervous,” Ms. Hedinsdottir said of her creditors. They got so nervous that they sent the coffee to a warehouse in Hamburg, Germany, where it now sits while she tries to find the foreign currency to pay for it.

Her fixed costs are no longer fixed. Five years ago, the company built a new factory, borrowing the 120 million kronur – about $1.5 million – in foreign currencies. But the currency’s fall has increased her debt to 200 million kronur. This summer, her monthly payments were 2.5 million kronur; now they may be double that – the equivalent of $38,500 in Iceland’s debased currency.

“My financial manager is talking to the banks every day, and we don’t know how much we’re supposed to pay,” Ms. Hedinsdottir said.

In a recent survey, one-third of Icelanders said they would consider emigrating. Foreigners are already abandoning Iceland.

Anthony Restivo, an American who worked this fall for a potato farm in eastern Iceland and was heading home, said all of the farm’s foreign workers abruptly left last month because their salaries had fallen so much. One man arrived from Poland, he said, then realized how little the krona was worth and went home the next day.

At the Kringlan shopping center on the edge of Reykjavik, Hronn Helgadottir, who works at the Aveda beauty store, said she could no longer afford to travel abroad. But the previous weekend, she said, she and her husband had gone for a last trip to Amsterdam, a holiday they had paid for months ago, when the krona was still strong.

They ate as cheaply as they could and bought nothing. “It was strange to stand in a store and look at a bag or a pair of shoes and see that they cost 100,000 kronur, when last year they cost only 40,000,” she said.

In Kopavogur, a suburb of Reykjavik, Ms. Runolfsdottir, the recently fired secretary, said she had worried for some time that Iceland would collapse under the weight of inflated expectations.

“If you drive through Reykjavik, you see all these new houses, and I’ve been thinking for the longest time, ‘Where are we going to get people to live in all these homes?'” she said.

The real estate firm that used to employ Ms. Runolfsdottir built about 800 houses two years ago, she said; only 40 percent have been sold.

By Icelandic law, Ms. Runolfsdottir and other fired employees have three months before they have to leave their jobs. At the end of that period, she will start drawing unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, her husband’s modest investment in several now-failed Icelandic banks is worthless. “They were encouraging us to buy shares in their firms until the last minute,” she said.

She feels angry at the government, which in her view has mishandled everything, and angry at the banks that have tarnished Iceland’s reputation. And while she has every sympathy with the hundreds of thousands of foreign depositors who may have lost their money, she wonders why the Icelandic government – and, in essence, the Icelandic people – should have to suffer more than they already have.

“We didn’t ask anyone to put their money in the banks,” she said. “These are private companies and private banks, and they went abroad and did business there.”

Despite all this, Icelanders are naturally optimistic, a trait born, perhaps, of living in one of the world’s most punishing landscapes and depending for so much of their history on the fickle fishing industry. The weak krona will make exports more attractive, they point out. Also, Iceland has a highly educated, young and flexible population, and has triumphed after hardship before.

Ragna Sara Jonsdottir, who runs a small business consultancy, said she had met for the first time with other businesses in her office building. “We sat down and said, ‘We all have ideas, and we can help each other through difficult times,’ ” she said.

But she said she was just as shocked as everyone else by the suddenness, and the severity, of the downturn. When the prime minister, Geir H. Haarde, addressed the nation at the beginning of October, she said, her 6-year-old daughter asked her to explain what he had said.

She answered that there was a crisis, but that the prime minister had not told the country how the government planned to address it. Her daughter said, “Maybe he didn’t know what to say.”

comScore Media Metrix Ranks Top 50 U.S. Web Properties for September 2008

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RESTON, VA,  October 17, 2008 – comScore, Inc. (NASDAQ: SCOR), a leader in measuring the digital world, today released its monthly analysis of U.S. consumer activity at the top online properties for September 2008 based on data from the comScore Media Metrix service. The tumultuous financial markets and the upcoming presidential elections were the main drivers of Internet traffic for the month. Training and education sites gained as the fall season prompted many students to prepare for the college application process and a gloomy economic outlook led some Americans to consider going back to school.

“As the financial crisis deepens, Americans have been anxiously following the latest news on the markets and carefully watching their personal financial accounts online,” commented Jack Flanagan, executive vice president of comScore Media Metrix. “The ability to track the market on a minute-by-minute basis and access banking and trading accounts quickly enables Americans to make financial decisions in real-time. Whether these decisions are sound or not is another story.”

Financial Crisis Causes Spike in Traffic to Online Trading and Financial News Sites

September proved to be a chaotic month for financial markets as several major banks crumbled and Congress raced to pass a $700 billion bailout plan to stabilize the financial markets. Consequently, visitation to business/finance – news/research and online trading sites soared with Americans keeping a watchful eye on the latest developments, as well as their personal finances.

Business/finance – news/research web sites saw a substantial increase in visitation in September, gaining 9 percent to more than 64 million visitors, while also increasing 16 percent in pages viewed and 29 percent in total time spent. These increases suggest that not only were more people visiting the sites in the category, but that they viewed more articles and content for longer periods of time on average.

Yahoo! Finance led the category with nearly 20 million visitors, a 30-percent jump from August. Several other sites experienced particularly strong growth amid the financial frenzy, including Russian financial site RBC.RU (up 155 percent to 1.2 million visitors), FoxBusiness.com (up 127 percent to 1.2 million visitors), and Google Finance (up 67 percent to 1.4 million visitors).

Top Gaining Sites in Business/Finance – News/Research Category

(Among sites with at least 1 million visitors)

September 2008 vs. August 2008

Total U.S. – Home, Work and University Locations

Source: comScore Media Metrix

Total Unique Visitors (000)

Aug-08

Sep-08

% Change

Total Internet : Total Audience

188,937

189,468

0

Business/Finance – News/Research

58,766

64,277

9

RBC.RU

466

1,190

155

FOXBUSINESS.COM

531

1,205

127

Google Finance

822

1,372

67

CNN Money

4,458

6,952

56

BLOOMBERG.COM

1,871

2,800

50

Yahoo! Finance

15,376

19,970

30

Bankrate.com Sites

2,902

3,742

29

Comcast.net Finance

1,309

1,571

20

CNBC.COM

1,270

1,524

20

Business Week Online

1,676

2,010

20

Online trading sites surged 10 percent to 12.6 million visitors in September, as investors kept watchful eyes on their dwindling portfolios and 401K’s. Fidelity Investments led the category with 3.5 million visitors, followed by ShareBuilder.com with 2 million visitors and Scottrade Sites with 1.7 million visitors. E-Trade Financial Network (up 26 percent to 1.6 million visitors), TD Ameritrade.com (up 30 percent to 1.4 million visitors) and Schwab.com (up 36 percent to 1.1 million visitors) each experienced double-digit growth.

Election Fever Drives Traffic to Politics Category

Politics reigned as the top-gaining category for the second consecutive month, experiencing a 43-percent increase to more than 20 million visitors, as interest in the Republican National Convention in early September and the first presidential debate later in the month generated heightened interest. BarackObama.com, one of the fastest-gaining properties of the month, led the category with 5.4 million visitors (up 37 percent versus August). JohnMcCain.com ranked second in the category with 3 million visitors, a 109-percent gain from August, with the Republican National Convention and interest in vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin helping drive visitors to the site.

College Application Season Prompts Growth at Training and Education Sites

The college search and admission process began in September as many high school students prepared their applications and a slumping economy left some professionals considering further education. Careers services and development – training and education sites experienced a 21-percent increase to nearly 12 million visitors during the month. College Board Property, which provides resources for college entrance exams, led the category with 2.6 million visitors (up 31 percent), followed by scholarship search provider Fastweb.com with 2.6 million visitors (up 44 percent), and EduPlace.com with 810,000 visitors (up 49 percent).

Education – information sites also gained during the month with September marking the first full month that most students were back in school across the country. The category grew 11 percent to more than 73 million visitors, led by Dictionary.com with 15 million visitors (up 39 percent), Pearson Education with 13.3 million visitors (up 34 percent), and Answers.com with nearly 11 million visitors (up 29 percent).

Top 50 Properties

Google Sites continued to lead as the most visited property in September with more than 144 million visitors, followed by Yahoo! Sites with 142 million visitors and Microsoft Sites with 122.3 million visitors. Wikimedia Foundation Sites, parent property of Wikipedia.org, climbed one place to capture the eighth position with 60.2 million visitors, while Glam Media moved up four spots to #10 with 52.3 million visitors. Strong interest in sports during the month of September, with Major League Baseball pennant races and the beginning of the NFL season, helped push ESPN up four spots to #32 with nearly 24 million visitors, while NFL Internet Group entered the ranking this month at #48 with nearly 18 million visitors.

Top 50 Ad Focus Ranking

Platform-A led the September Ad Focus ranking reaching 91 percent of the 189.5 million Americans online. Yahoo! Network reached 86 percent of the population followed by Google Ad Network with a reach of 83 percent. Traffic Marketplace entered the top 10 this month, capturing the ninth position and reaching 131.5 million visitors. 24/7 Real Media also experienced an increase, gaining three spots to #11 and reaching nearly 129 million visitors.

comScore Top 10 Gaining Properties by Percentage Change in Unique Visitors* (U.S.)

September 2008 vs. August 2008

Total U.S. – Home, Work and University Locations

Source: comScore Media Metrix

Total Unique Visitors (000)

Aug-08

Sep-08

% Change

Rank by Unique Visitors

Total Internet : Total Audience

188,937

189,468

0

N/A

Technorati Media

3,066

11,269

268

90

ABC.COM

5,089

12,627

148

76

MANIATV.COM

2,793

4,716

69

233

Fantasy Sports Ventures

4,253

6,312

48

173

MEGAVIDEO.COM

3,430

5,067

48

217

Encyclopaedia Britannica

6,697

9,688

45

108

HotChalk

6,239

9,009

44

116

Nintendo Co.

3,728

5,216

40

209

HUFFINGTONPOST.COM

3,293

4,545

38

238

BARACKOBAMA.COM

3,913

5,350

37

204

*Ranking based on the top 250 properties in September 2008

comScore Top 10 Gaining Categories by Percentage Change in Unique Visitors (U.S.)

September 2008 vs. August 2008

Total U.S. – Home, Work and University Locations

Source: comScore Media Metrix

Total Unique Visitors (000)

Aug-08

Sep-08

% Change

Total Internet : Total Audience

188,937

189,468

0

Politics

14,040

20,081

43

Career Services and Development – Training and Education

9,576

11,588

21

Genealogy

7,929

9,067

14

Religion

20,423

22,895

12

Retail – Food

15,115

16,851

11

Education – Information

65,908

73,170

11

Retail – Computer Software

20,280

22,445

11

Online Trading

11,427

12,550

10

Business/Finance – News/Research

58,766

64,277

9

Technology – News

43,647

46,868

7

comScore Top 50 Properties (U.S.)

September 2008

Total U.S. – Home, Work and University Locations

Unique Visitors (000)

Source: comScore Media Metrix

Rank

Property

Unique Visitors

(000)

Rank

Property

Unique Visitors

(000)

Total Internet : Total Audience

189,468

1

Google Sites

144,293

26

Superpages.com Network

27,625

2

Yahoo! Sites

141,956

27

Verizon Communications Corporation

27,125

3

Microsoft Sites

122,338

28

United Online, Inc

25,301

4

AOL LLC

108,349

29

Gorilla Nation

25,024

5

Fox Interactive Media

87,414

30

Yellowpages.com Network

24,916

6

eBay

69,322

31

Bank of America

24,727

7

Ask Network

62,101

32

ESPN

23,869

8

Wikimedia Foundation Sites

60,200

33

WordPress

23,125

9

Amazon Sites

55,749

34

Monster Worldwide

23,104

10

Glam Media

52,292

35

Shopzilla.com Sites

22,702

11

CBS Corporation

52,050

36

CareerBuilder LLC

22,522

12

Apple Inc.

47,556

37

Weatherbug Property

22,427

13

New York Times Digital

47,146

38

Photobucket.com LLC

22,371

14

Turner Network

46,860

39

Demand Media

22,361

15

Viacom Digital

44,517

40

Answers.com Sites

22,253

16

FACEBOOK.COM

41,416

41

Gannett Sites

21,689

17

Weather Channel, The

37,916

42

Real.com Network

21,515

18

craigslist, inc.

35,258

43

Hearst Corporation

19,403

19

Adobe Sites

35,100

44

iVillage.com: The Womens Network

19,183

20

Time Warner – Excluding AOL

30,851

45

WorldNow – ABC Owned Sites

18,884

21

AT&T, Inc.

30,134

46

WhitePages

18,664

22

Wal-Mart

29,003

47

Expedia Inc

18,279

23

Comcast Corporation

28,700

48

NFL Internet Group

17,857

24

Disney Online

28,607

49

WebMD Health

17,263

25

Target Corporation

28,213

50

The Mozilla Organization

17,179

comScore Ad Focus Ranking (U.S.)

September 2008

Total U.S. – Home, Work and University Locations

Unique Visitors (000)

Source: comScore Media Metrix

Rank

Property

Unique Visitors (000)

Reach %

Rank

Property

Unique Visitors (000)

Reach %

Total Internet : Total Audience

189,468

100%

1

Platform-A**

171,692

91%

26

Centro – Potential Reach

83,921

44%

2

Yahoo! Network**

161,996

86%

27

AdBrite**

79,853

42%

3

Google Ad Network**

156,355

83%

28

YOUTUBE.COM

75,389

40%

4

Specific Media**

153,435

81%

29

NNN Total Newspapers: U.S.

73,880

39%

5

ValueClick Networks**

150,395

79%

30

Vibrant Media**

73,323

39%

6

Tribal Fusion**

141,850

75%

31

MYSPACE.COM*

73,035

39%

7

Yahoo!

140,200

74%

32

Gorilla Nation Media – Potential Reach

64,303

34%

8

Google

136,219

72%

33

Ask Network

62,101

33%

9

Traffic Marketplace**

131,458

69%

34

Kontera**

58,809

31%

10

YuMe Video Network – Potential Reach

130,238

69%

35

Pulse 360**

58,559

31%

11

24/7 Real Media**

128,775

68%

36

MSN.COM Home Page

57,457

30%

12

Casale Media – MediaNet**

128,585

68%

37

EBAY.COM

55,476

29%

13

Tremor Media – Potential Reach

128,060

68%

38

ITN National Broadband Networks – Potential Reach

54,905

29%

14

Adconion Media Group**

122,632

65%

39

Ybrant – Oridian – ADdynamix Network**

53,993

28%

15

interCLICK**

121,987

64%

40

IB Local Network

53,645

28%

16

Revenue Science**

120,899

64%

41

IAC Ad Solutions – Potential Reach

52,405

28%

17

DRIVEpm**

113,162

60%

42

NNN Top 25

51,222

27%

18

CPX Interactive**

111,847

59%

43

Intergi – Potential Reach

48,929

26%

19

ADSDAQ by ContextWeb**

109,570

58%

44

Business.com Network

47,174

25%

20

Collective Media**

109,489

58%

45

QuadrantONE – Potential Reach

46,403

24%

21

MSN-Windows Live

109,274

58%

46

AMAZON.COM

45,980

24%

22

AOL Media Network

108,349

57%

47

TattoMedia**

44,894

24%

23

Burst Media**

101,493

54%

48

MapQuest

44,588

24%

24

Turn, Inc**

101,462

54%

49

AdOn Network**

43,719

23%

25

Undertone Networks**

85,722

45%

50

NNN Top 10

42,032

22%

Reach % denotes the percentage of the total Internet population that viewed a particular entity at least once in September.  For instance, Yahoo! was seen by 74 percent of the 189 million Internet users in September.

* Entity has assigned some portion of traffic to other syndicated entities.

** Denotes an advertising network.

About comScore Media Metrix

comScore Media Metrix provides industry-leading Internet audience measurement services that report details of online media usage, visitor demographics and online buying power for the home, work and university audiences across local U.S. markets and across the globe. comScore Media Metrix reports are used by financial analysts, advertising agencies, publishers and marketers. comScore Media Metrix syndicated ratings are based on industry-sanctioned sampling methodologies.

About comScore
comScore, Inc. (NASDAQ: SCOR) is a global leader in measuring the digital world and preferred source of digital marketing intelligence. For more information, please visit www.comscore.com/boilerplate
Contact:
Sarah Radwanick
Senior Analyst
comScore, Inc.
312-775-6538
press@comscore.com

Cheatsheet: Phthalates or Plasticizers

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Cheatsheet: Phthalates

Everything you need to know about phthalates

What is it?

Phthalates are a common industrial chemical used in PVC plastics, solvents, and synthetic fragrances. They’ve been around since the 1930’s, and now they’re pretty ubiquitous; when they tested 289 people in 2000, the CDC found phthalates in all of the subjects’ blood at surprisingly high levels. They’re often referred to as a plasticizer, which we think sounds rather like a kind of exercise to be done on the living-room floor in front of videos hosted by Jane Fonda. But we digress.

What are the possible health effects?

Phthalates are endocrine disruptors linked to problems of the reproductive system, including decreased sperm motility and concentration in men and genital abnormalities in baby boys. (Oh, and did you know that average sperm counts have decreased significantly since the 1940’s?) More recently they’ve also been linked to asthma and allergies.

How can I minimize my exposure?

Avoid these, and you’ll also be avoiding phthalates:

  1. Nail polish: Dibutyl phthalate is often used to make nail polish chip-resistant. Look for it on the ingredients list, where it may be shortened to DBP.
  2. Plastics in the kitchen: Take a critical eye to your cupboards. Phthalates may be more likely to leach out of plastic when it’s heated, so avoid cooking or microwaving in plastic.
  3. Vinyl toys: Phthalates are what make vinyl (PVC) toys soft, so don’t give them to children. Opt instead for wooden and other phthalate-free toys, especially during that age when they put everything in their mouths!
  4. Paint: Paints and other hobby products may contain phthalates as solvents, so be sure to use them in a well-ventilated space.
  5. Fragrance: Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is often used as part of the “fragrance” in some products. Since DEP won’t be listed separately, you’re better off choosing personal care products, detergents, and cleansers that don’t have the word “fragrance” on the ingredients list.
  6. Vinyl: Vinyl shows up in a lot of different products; lawn furniture, garden hoses, building materials, and items of clothing (like some raincoats) are often sources. Aside from carefully choosing materials when you’re making purchases, there is one easy change you can make: switch to a non-vinyl shower curtain. That “new shower curtain” smell (you know the one) is a result of chemical off-gassing, and it means your shower curtain is a source of phthalates in your home.
  7. Air Fresheners: Just like fragrances in personal care products, most air fresheners contain phthalates.

Where can I learn more?

  1. Here’s a link to Phthalates in the Chemical Index.
  2. Phthalates were just one of the hormone-disrupting chemicals we found contaminating the San Francisco Bay.
  3. NRDC has the low-down on phthalates in air fresheners.
  4. EWG’s Jane Houlihan discusses phthalates in children’s personal care products.
  5. Olga explains a recent study linking phthalates to asthma and allergies.

Orginal photo by Felix63

Dog Fur Jumpers (Sweaters)

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Hair of the dog: The animal lovers who turned their dead pets’ coats into woolly jumpers

Their beloved dogs may have gone to the great kennel in the sky, but for Beth and Brian Willis they will always be close. Because the couple have had his and hers jumpers knitted out of the hair moulted by the pedigree pets and spun into yarn.

And they insist the bizarre garments keep them warm and dry no matter how bad the winter weather gets.

Here is the before photo;

dog fur jumpers sweaters clothing

Beth and Brian Willis’ much loved pets: Swedish Lapphund Penny and white Samoyed Kara

And now here is the after photo;

dog fur jumpers sweaters clothing
Hair of the dog: Beth and Brian Willis in their his’n’hers jumpers made from their dead dogs’ hair

The idea to use the hair, which would otherwise have been vacuumed up and thrown out with the rubbish, came after dog breeders told the couple of the unusual use it could have.

The first jumper was knitted by 71-year-old Mrs Willis from hair from Kara, the couple’s white Samoyed, a Russian breed.

Mrs Willis said: “It is not actually a hair but a wool, which is why it is so good for clothes.

“It would just fall off the dogs and I would run a wet hand over the carpet and pick it up.

“We found out from the breeders we got the pups from that it was possible to use their coat for clothes.

“Apparently it is quite popular with lots of the people who breed long-haired dogs.”

That first jumper was made in 1990, while Kara was still alive.

Although she died 12 years ago, the jumper made from her hair is still going strong.

The Samoyed breed is native to northern Russia, where they were used to keep children warm. Its fur is almost waterproof and softer than alpaca.

By the time the Newcastle couple’s next dog, a Swedish Lapphund called Penny, died six years ago, Mrs Willis was already working on a new garment.

And the retired St John ambulance telephonist says that she even has enough left over to make another sweater.Mr Willis, 73, who worked for a removals firm for 27 years, wears his doggy jumper every Saturday into town to do the weekly shop.

He said: “They are extremely warm and pretty much waterproof. Unless it is banging it down, it is fine.

“I’ve always got a sweat on by the time I get from the bus to the shops.”

Mr and Mrs Willis send the hair to be spun by Malise Mcguire at her home in Derby.

Mrs Mcguire, 60, has been spinning dog wool since 1977.

She said: “It takes about 30oz to make a jumper, but you would need 40oz at the start as you lose some in the spinning.

“Brian and Beth have had more than 5lb spun, wrapped, pre-shrunk and ready to be knitted.”

Mr and Mrs Willis celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last year and have three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

But Mrs Willis said her next dog fur creation will have to wait.

She is too busy knitting jumpers for the youngsters – using wool.

Reusable plastic bottles leach BPA at room temperature

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Reusable plastic bottles leach BPA at room temperature

February 15, 2008, EWG

This may be worse than we thought

A lot of people have those reusable polycarbonate water bottles; you can’t go to a college campus these days without seeing students carrying these multi-hued bottles around as they make their way through classes.

polycarb_bottle.jpg

Well, a couple weeks back researchers at the University of Cincinnati released a startling new study showing that many of these bottles leach bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor, into water that is being stored within the container.

These researchers found that these plastic bottles leach BPA into room-temperature water. That’s bad enough, but if boiling water is put into these bottles, the rate of BPA leaching goes up by quite a bit.

All the evidence out there tells us that this stuff is not good for you; EWG tested canned foods recently, which are lined with the same BPA plastic as these water bottles are made from. As it turns out, foods from metal cans contain significantly more of the chemical than water from bottles.

We applaud the use of reusable water bottles to cut down on the environmental impact of bottled water, but with this new research, metal water bottles are looking better and better. Some have a plastic lining, but Klean Kanteen makes metal water bottles that are BPA free.

Parents who are concerned about baby’s plastic bottles should know that although this study didn’t look at baby bottles, it studied the same type of plastic. At this point, there’s enough research out there to justify the added expense of buying BPA-free or glass bottles. But an even more critical step would be to substitute powdered formula for liquid formula if your baby isn’t drinking breast milk. Babies don’t need to be getting extra endocrine disruptors in any form.

Visa planning largest IPO in U.S. history

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Visa planning largest IPO in U.S. history

By Eric Dash, Tuesday, February 26, 2008, IHT

Undaunted by recent turbulence in the financial markets, Visa, the biggest credit-card network in the United States, said Monday that it would forge ahead with what would be the largest initial public stock offering in the nation’s history.

Visa plans to sell as much as $17.1 billion of stock in late March, following in the footsteps of its smaller rival MasterCard, which went public in May 2006.

Visa and MasterCard are prospering as Americans increasingly flex plastic, rather than use cash, to pay for just about everything. The companies have not been hurt by the credit crunch, because they do not actually make credit-card loans. They merely processes transactions for banks that do.

If all goes as planned, Visa’s offering would generate a windfall for thousands of its so-called member banks, which own the company. The largest gains would go many of the nation’s biggest banks, which have been stung by losses stemming from mortgage-linked investments.

“Visa will be able to tell its story, even in an uncertain market, because its story is a good one,” said David Robertson, publisher of The Nilson Report, a payment industry newsletter. “If investors think MasterCard is a good story, Visa looks like the same thing on a bigger scale.”

Visa plans to sell 406 million Class A shares for $37 to $42 a share, with just over half going to the public and the rest to Visa’s member banks.

The first $3 billion will be placed into a special account to cover outstanding antitrust and unfair-pricing claims brought by merchants. Visa will use some of the new money to streamline its operations, expand in fast-growing emerging markets and invest in new technology like systems that enable people to make card payments using cellular phones. But the bulk of the capital will end up in the bank’s coffers, from repurchasing stock from them.

Visa’s member banks can use the extra cash.

If Visa’s shares are valued at a midpoint price of $39.50, JPMorgan Chase, the company’s largest shareholder, would receive an estimated $1.1 billion for its stake. Bank of America would get about $545 million; National City would get about $380 million; and Citigroup, U.S. Bancorp, and Wells Fargo can each expect around $240 million or more.

“The credit crunch is pretty cyclical; the prospects for Visa are very strong long-term,” said Marc Abbey, the managing partner of First Annapolis, a consulting firm that works with many banks and payments companies. “I am sure it is convenient for them to have extraordinary gains at the same time they have extraordinary losses.”

Since going public nearly two years ago, MasterCard have soared 408 percent, closing at $198.45 on Monday. It now has a market value of $26 billion.

MasterCard’s successful IPO prompted Visa to move forward with owns plans to go public. Since October 2006, Visa has reorganized its sprawling management structure, bringing together all of its global operations with the exception of those in Europe. It has also hired Joseph Saunders, the former head of Providian Financial Corporation, as its chairman and chief executive, giving him a pay package worth $11.1 million in cash for 2007. Upon completion of the IPO, he is expected to receive an additional $11.5 million in stock and options, according to Equilar, a compensation research firm.

Visa transactions accounted for roughly 66 percent of all credit and debit card purchases in the United States in 2006, compared to about 26 percent for MasterCard, according to The Nilson Report data.

Growth in card transactions, the foundation of the companies’ businesses , has historically held up well, even when the economy and consumer spending slows.

“If you look back at the last recession, card transactions did not drop ? they took a dip in growth, but they didn’t fall below prior year,” Robertson said.

“There is no reason to think that growth in the United States is going to sink Visa’s boat,” he said. “Whatever lackluster growth in the U.S. should certainly be matched and exceeded by what occurs outside the U.S.”

The prospectus for the sale lays out a convoluted capital structure, with four classes of shares, including three which go to the banks. But the deal, which is underwritten by JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, also raises potential conflicts for the banks underwriting the shares.

Both institutions have strong ties to the financial services industry. But JPMorgan is Visa’s largest shareholder and largest customer. It is a member of the bank syndicate that agreed to lend $3 billion to the company. And it could reap more than 1.1 billion in proceeds from the IPO

Goldman, meanwhile, will serve as the “qualified independent underwriter” in setting the price of the offering, according to public filings. Its independence is not deemed in question even though Suzanne Nora Johnson, a Visa director, used to be a vice chairman of Goldman Sachs.

International Herald Tribune Copyright © 2008 The International Herald Tribune | http://www.iht.com

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