Officials Blind To Eye In The Sky?

June 22, 2007

The Uticasux blog has a fascinating story to tell about an effort to market a law enforcement drone helicopter, invented right there in the Mohawk Valley. The problem is, the developer of what seems to be a practical, cost-saving tool for cops was unable to interest anyone in making his project a reality.

Those who rejected the idea include an organization supposedly dedicated to economic development, and the now-former House member who represented the Utica area for many years.

britishdronehelicopter.jpgWas this computer-controlled, unmanned chopper practical? Apparently, because British police have just launched a fleet of small drone helicopters, amid some controversy, that are being used to keep crime suspects under surveillance.

Was the Utica-based invention unfairly, or even systematically ignored? See what you think by reading the story here.


Beware The Bank of Wal-Mart

June 21, 2007

Well, it won’t actually be a bank. Because federal regulators, persuaded by small bankers that Wal-Mart could put them out of business, won’t grant Wal-Mart a bank charter.

So the world’s largest retailer has found a workaround: Assemble a package of financial services through deals with third-party partners, and make Wal-Mart a bank in almost every sense but the legal one.

walmartmoney.jpgOver the next year, the company plans to introduce a prepaid debit card, intended for low-income consumers, and install money centers — which currently offer check cashing, bill paying and money order services — into at least 1,000 stores, up from 225 now.

The moves are seen as a precursor to even wider offerings, like mortgages and home equity loans, which could turn Wal-Mart into a significant force in the banking world. Jane J. Thompson, the president of Wal-Mart financial services, called the prepaid cards and money center services “foundational products” that the retailer would build upon. “Our concept is to go up the credit ladder of financial services,” she said in an interview.

Ronald K. Ence, vice president for Congressional relations at the Independent Community Bankers of America, a trade group, said Wal-Mart’s intentions suggest that the company misled the public when it said repeatedly that it did not plan to enter the consumer banking business.

“Clearly this was their intention all along,” he said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

The New York Times

“The Bank of Wal-Mart” could be a great convenience for the store chain’s 36 million customers who have no bank accounts. They can transfer their paychecks directly onto pre-paid debit cards and very likely spend big chunks of their low incomes at the store. As for credit cards and loans, what interest rates will Wal-Mart charge these customers? Could putting their financial lives in the retailer’s hands be a trap, as well as a convenience?

Local bankers and others will be watching with concern, as Wal-Mart quadruples the non-branches of its non-banks and gives people who need to watch every penny, incentives to sign up.

Getting Geeky About Gasoline

June 19, 2007

Hot summer days. The time when gasoline prices peak, most years. And never has that peak been higher than right now, in the summer of 2007.

Ever hear the somewhat geeky advice that you can save on gas when it’s hot by filling up early in the day from those cool, underground tanks at the gas station, and let the fuel expand in your car’s tank as the outdoor temperature rises? Sounds like a great tip- if only it made sense.

pumpinggas.gifThe real experts say the volume of fuel in your car’s tank certainly does increase with rising temperatures, but the energy in that tankful does not. And now, politicians and other oil company critics are trying to turn the temperature of gasoline when it’s sold to you into a serious issue. They claim it’s one more reason you’re paying too much at the pump.

The hot fuel effect is a matter of simple physics.

Almost a century ago, the industry and regulators agreed to define a gallon of gasoline as 231 cubic inches at 60 degrees. But as the temperature rises and gasoline expands, it takes more than a gallon of gas to produce the same amount of energy as a regular gallon in colder weather.

As sold nationally, gasoline is an average of about five degrees warmer than the federal standard, according to a study analyzed by Dick Suiter of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

AP/Detroit Free Press

Conclusion: you’re paying at least a few cents extra per gallon because you’re getting a full tank of liquid, but not a full tank of energy.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who struggles to be nominated for president every four years, says this is a hot issue and something needs to be done about it. He and other lawmakers want the oil companies to adjust prices based on air temperature. Maybe even install all-new pumps that would to that automatically.

Among their arguments against that, of course, is that it would drive up the price of gasoline. We are anywhere but in the driver’s seat, when it comes to the cost of getting around on four wheels.

Shoppers Turning Away From The Web

June 17, 2007

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! So what did the family give you as a gift- a day of leisure, or maybe some cool gadget?

If it was the latter, they probably went to a store to pick it up, instead of shopping online. The New York Times tells us today that the growth of Web commerce is beginning to max out, an argument supported by statistics, and the fact that retailers like Dell Computer, who built their businesses online, are beginning to move into retail stores.

onlineshopper.gifNancy F. Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies retailing and consumer habits, said that the leveling off of e-commerce reflected the practical and psychological limitations of shopping online. She said that as physical stores have made the in-person buying experience more pleasurable, online stores have continued to give shoppers a blasé experience. In addition, online shopping, because it involves a computer, feels like work.

“It’s not like you go onto Amazon and think: ‘I’m a little depressed. I’ll go onto this site and get transported,’ ” she said, noting that online shopping is more a chore than an escape.

NY Times: Web-Weary Shoppers

How to draw more people online, or into physical stores? In both cases, the experts say, make it more fun, provide good service, and stop charging so much for shipping.

The sales taxes commerce sites add to our bills, we’ve noticed, are also a factor. Even though we’re supposed to ‘fess up and pay up at income tax time, a lot of people just don’t.

Many hunt for out-of-state online retailers that charge no sales tax, like, say L.L. Bean. In Bean’s case, you may know, that advantage for New Yorkers is soon to go away, as L.L.’s descendants prepare to open an Albany-area version of Maine’s famous clothing, camping and hiking store.

Vote For New “Bullies” Team Name

June 15, 2007

You have to give the guy some credit for letting himself be “bullied” by public opinion-well, maybe. Rochester contractor Nicholas Fitts, who’s starting a new ABA basketball franchise in Syracuse, says he decided to abandon the name “Bullies” a couple of months ago, but has waited until now to let us know.

nobullies.gifSome of the anti-violence people and groups who protested the original name, according to the Syracuse Post Standard, may think the owner was a little more bull-headed than that, but they’re generally glad about the decision- however belated it may have been.

As of this writing, the Bullies Web site carries no mention of the search for a new name, and no way to vote on the choices Fitts is offering up to fans. They are:

  • Bullz (Fitts is a big Chicago fan)
  • Netz (he likes the letter “z”)
  • Sentinels (Where’d that come from?)
  • Snowballers (a team of chubby white guys?)
  • Avalanche (a force of nature- our favorite so far)
  • Write In your original team name

You can vote at participating Wendy’s restaurants and all CNY Wegmans food stores over the next few weeks; an announcement of the results is planned on July 12th. If you don’t patronize those businesses, send your choices to us here at the Circus by clicking on comment, or sending an e-mail to

We’ll be happy to fill the gap, at least until Nicholas Fitts and the ex-Bullies get around to updating their site.

Kids, Jobs and Gambling: Stakes Are High

June 14, 2007

Notes from all over, based on taking chances with cold, hard cash: The Syracuse School district, trying to prevent as many as 130 job cuts and push ahead with a re-configuration plan despite its apparent cash shortage, is taking out a big loan.

With expected State Legislature approval, the schools will borrow $6 million from the state, an advance on future lottery-generated aid, to be paid back over the next 30 years. Even with the loan, jobs are still likely to be cut, as a couple of elementary schools will start moving toward a K-8 student body- said by some experts to be the best way to improve the sad test scores of many middle schoolers.

turningstone.jpgCNY’s Turning Stone Casino wins the big gamble on its future: The U.S. Interior Department says it’s free to keep operating, despite an earlier court decision that found its compact with New York State- approved only by former governor Mario Cuomo- illegal. The lights will keep flashing, the wheels will continue to spin, and profits said to total more than a billion dollars a year will keep rolling in.

Place your bets on the future of the American auto industry? Automakers struggling to compete in the domestic and world markets plan to imitate the Japanese in one more way: pay and benefits for their employees.

The Big 3 are asking for givebacks from the UAW amounting to $25 per hour, as the companies stake out their position for negotiating a new contract. Japanese workers are said to make the equivalent of $48 per hour in pay and benefits, while Americans earn $70+.

Cut that much in a year, or even over three years? Not likely. But the automakers are betting their future on the plan. Also on the table in this very high-stakes game, of course, are the workers’ jobs.

Football Fashion Failure?

June 12, 2007

The SU Orange is a little bruised today, after saying it was mishandled by Sports Illustrated On Campus.

That’s a Web site that chronicles college athletics and tries to stir up some controversy, when it can, to draw traffic. Understandable, but according to the Syracuse Post Standard, the man who apparently got the last word in selecting Syracuse University’s football uniforms is a little wounded by SIOC’s decision to rate them as the fourth ugliest in the country. That would be athletic director Daryl Gross, not one to show false modesty about his brilliant ideas of gridiron chic:

“They look fabulous,” said Gross of the current uniforms. “They’re symmetrical. There’s congruence. The color schemes are well balanced. Greg (Robinson) loves the traditional feel to them. They’re the same thing Ernie Davis wore except Nike took the stripes up top and added orange. It’s all based on history. It’s very clean, traditional, non-futuristic.”

Gross said he’s “never heard one complaint” about the white uniforms. He has gotten complaints about the blues, though he added the feedback is “more good than bad.”

Syracuse Post Standard

Gross sounds as if he might still be smarting over the laughter that ensued when SU changed its basketball uniforms, putting the players in long, baggy shorts that look more than a little like ladies’ culottes. We covered the new “Systems of Dress” from Nike here at the Circus in March, and got reader comments raising the bar to new heights of ridicule.

As for football, check out SIOC’S rogue’s gallery of football fashion flops and see if you think the Orange outfits belong there.