Monday, August 17, 2009

Zimbabwe's Zombie Currency

It's dead, but lives on:


The "Zimdollar:" Dead, but still used for bus fare
By ANGUS SHAW, Associated Press Writer Angus Shaw, Associated Press Writer Sun Aug 16, 12:32 am ET

HARARE, Zimbabwe – A woman pays her bus fare with 3 trillion in old Zimbabwe dollars — the equivalent of 50 U.S. cents. The collector accepts the brick of neatly folded bundles of a trillion each without bothering to count the notes.

"No one seems to worry, and it works," said the woman, Lucy Denya, a Harare secretary who says she's seen police officers using old notes to board buses.

The Zimbabwe dollar is officially dead. It was killed off in hopes of curbing record world inflation of billions of percentage points, and Zimbabwe has replaced it with the U.S. dollar and the South African rand.

Yet the role of the old Zimdollar, as it is known, remains in flux. It is still used, and has become another point of contention for the divided leadership of the country, now one of the poorest in the world.

President Robert Mugabe has called for the return of the Zimdollar as legal tender, complaining that most Zimbabweans lack the hard currency needed to buy basic goods. The central bank under governor Gideon Gono, a Mugabe loyalist, has acknowledged printing extra local money to fund government spending that fueled inflation.

But Finance Minister Tendai Biti, who joined the government as part of a power-sharing agreement between his Movement for Democratic Change and Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, has declared the local dollar indefinitely obsolete. He has threatened to quit if a return to the local currency is forced upon him.

"We are putting the tombstone on the corpse of the Zimbabwe dollar," Biti told lawmakers in a midyear fiscal policy statement. In a speech to business leaders, he said, "We are no longer printing our own money."

Biti said monthly inflation rose slightly in June to 0.6 percent, up from zero the month before. He blamed the rise on price hikes in property rentals, gasoline and other nonfood items. He also noted that GDP per capita has plunged from $720 in 2002 to $265 last year, reflecting the shortage of hard cash in the economy.

That shortage is not helped by the state of the global economy, on which Zimbabwe depends.

With the collapse of the country's agricultural economy after the seizure of thousands of white-owned farms beginning in 2000, an estimated 4 million Zimbabweans — many of them skilled — left the country to find jobs in neighboring South Africa and further afield. The so-called "diaspora dollar" became by far the nation's biggest source of hard currency.

But in the global recession, those inflows are diminishing, bankers say. In a typical case, a businessman's daughter in Britain e-mailed him in June that she was halving her monthly remittance of $400.

The independent Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce blamed acute shortages of hard currency on payments to buy imported basic goods previously manufactured in Zimbabwe, such as soap and cooking oil from South Africa.

Without enough cash no matter how they cut it, Zimbabweans survive on a mish-mash of currencies.

All the bus drivers can do with Zimdollars is give them back to other passengers in change for American bills. In one reported incident, a passenger pulled a gun on a bus driver who insisted on paying change in local notes.

Outside the cities, where hard currency can be hard to come by, Zimbabwe dollars are used like promissory notes in small transactions. And trillion Zimbabwe dollar notes, the world's biggest denomination bills, are a hit with collectors, selling briskly on eBay. In Zimbabwe, they change hands like tokens or IOUs.

Stores without small change in hard currency don't offer obsolete Zimbabwe dollars in change like the bus drivers do, but routinely provide candies and chocolate bars or "coupons" handwritten on check-out slips to be redeemed on future purchases.

Irene Gwata, owner of a small trading store in rural northwestern Zimbabwe, said hard currency has stopped filtering down to her customers in recent weeks. Locals trade goat meat, chickens and pails of corn for goods, she said.

She saw a village woman board a bus and pay with a live chicken trussed in wire for the 150-kilometer (90-mile) trip to Harare.

With characteristic Zimbabwean humor in adversity, Gwata said, "people wanted to know if she was going to get eggs for change."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ripped (music industry book excerpt)

NYT has an excerpt from the book Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music by Greg Kot. Check it out.

While My Guitar Gently Beeps: Beatles Go Gaming

The New York Times Magazine has a huge article on the coming Beatles Rock Band game, and the potential business changes it may influence:

Music games are also a serious business. Together, Rock Band and Guitar Hero have earned more than $3 billion. The money comes not just from initial sales but also from a continuing stream of new songs that can be downloaded for about $2 a piece. The Rock Band catalog contains more than 800 songs by bands as disparate as the Grateful Dead and Megadeth. Early on, artists noticed that people were discovering music in games and then buying it elsewhere. On iTunes, downloads of the 1978 Cheap Trick song “Surrender” tripled after it appeared in Guitar Hero 2, and sales of a 1994 Weezer song from Guitar Hero 3 increased tenfold. Increasingly, games are also seen as a significant distribution platform in their own right. In its first week, Motley Crue’s 2008 single “Saints of Los Angeles” sold nearly five times as many copies on Rock Band as it did on iTunes, and at twice the price. Next month, Pearl Jam plans to release its new album simultaneously on CD and in Rock Band.In perhaps the surest sign that the music industry has started to take games seriously, feuds have erupted over which parties are stealing the others’ profits.

At the moment, the game companies decide which music to sell, and there is a bottleneck of record labels pushing to get their artists into the games. But last month Harmonix announced that it will license software tools and provide training for anyone to create and distribute interactive versions of their own songs on a new Rock Band Network, which will drastically expand the amount and variety of interactive music available. Already the Sub Pop label, which released the first Nirvana album, has said it plans to put parts of its catalog and future releases into game format. The Rock Band Network is so potentially consequential that Harmonix went to great lengths to keep its development secret, including giving it the unofficial in-house code name Rock Band: Nickelback, on the theory that the name of the quintessentially generic modern rock group would be enough to deflect all curiosity. After a polite gesture in the direction of modesty, Rigopulos predicted, “We’re really going to explode this thing to be the new music industry.” People who have never played a video game will buy The Beatles: Rock Band, he said, and once they do, they’ll want interactive songs from their other favorite artists. “As huge as Guitar Hero and Rock Band have been over the past few years, I still think we’re on the shy side of the chasm,” Rigopulos maintains, “because the Beatles have a reach and power that transcends any other band.”

Read the full article HERE.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Healing Power of Death Metal (music program for disabled veterans)

The Healing Power of Death Metal
An innovative new music program for disabled veterans.
By Anne Applebaum
Posted Monday, Aug. 3, 2009, at 8:01 PM ET

[see original for images and hyperlinks]

Two years ago, someone called up Arthur Bloom and made an unusual request: A badly wounded soldier, a former drummer, wanted to start playing music again. Trouble was, he'd lost a leg in Iraq and couldn't use his old drum kit. Did Bloom have any ideas?

As it happened, he did. Bloom is a classically trained pianist who can mix a rap song, a composer whose work has been performed by the Israel Chamber Orchestra, Def Jam Records, and everything in between. Tinkering with musical instruments is the kind of thing he does for fun. Bloom went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, met the drummer, and rigged up a drum set. Then he went back—again, and then again—until finally he founded a program, Musicorps, designed to teach music to disabled soldiers. It wasn't just the appeal of "helping veterans" that drew him in. It was also what he learned about what one of his protégés has memorably described as "the healing power of death metal."

As that phrase perhaps conveys, Bloom's project isn't standard music therapy. On the contrary, after working with a few Walter Reed patients, he realized that what a severely injured person needs isn't just a few guitar lessons or some soothing sounds, but rather what he calls "real" music: serious, one-on-one, customized training, ongoing collaboration, professional mentors. In pursuit of this idea, he persuaded donors to give him instruments, got Steve Jobs to donate computers, and set up what looks like a small recording studio in one of the residential houses at Walter Reed. Bloom started hanging around the house, ready to teach, practice, or produce original music with the vets—or, if so required, to rewrite a piece of piano music so that a one-armed veteran could play it with his artificial hand.

The result? Well, there are halls of residence at Walter Reed where depressed young men sit in their rooms and stare at the walls. And then there is the music session I watched, during which a young soldier with an artificial leg, shrapnel wounds, and no prior musical training practiced complex electric guitar riffs to the pace of an electronic drumbeat. A visiting guitarist kept setting that beat faster and faster, forcing the vet to play faster and faster, until all broke out in howls of laughter. Meanwhile, another soldier, also with an artificial leg, tinkered with his rap lyrics. He hopes to get one of his songs, mixed and recorded at Walter Reed ("it's about being blown up in Iraq"), played on the radio.

It was a cheerful scene, but it was more than that, too. Many of the soldiers at Walter Reed sustained some level of brain damage in the explosions that ripped off their arms or legs; almost by definition, they all have psychological issues stemming from the injury and their war experiences. Dr. Allen Brown, director of brain research and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic—and a Musicorps adviser—reckons that because the process of learning to play music requires the use of so many different parts of the brain, it might literally help the brain recover, to compensate for severe injury. Dr. Brown is now working with Bloom, he told me, in order to come up with a way to "clinically evaluate this process," not least so that it can be repeated elsewhere. So far, more than a dozen veterans have been helped by Musicorps. Thousands more could benefit—though nothing involving professional musicians can run on volunteer energy forever.

The project is extraordinary on its own—look at the Musicorps Web site for more details—but it carries a whole constellation of implications. In the spring of 2007, Congress agonized over the fate of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed after a Washington Post investigation into shabby buildings and shabbier bureaucracy at the nation's main military hospital. The fresh paint and better services that resulted from that scandal are only the beginning of what needs to be done.

In truth, it's been a long, long time since there have been so many wounded Americans to care for, and neither our military nor our government is good at inventing customized recovery programs like Musicorps. Entrepreneurs like Bloom can come up with new solutions; the question is whether our health care system and our philanthropic organizations have become too ossified to support them. In its narrow way, the fate of Bloom's program will tell us a lot about how well we are going to care for the thousands of men and women severely wounded in the wars of the last decade, men and women who will go on needing care for many decades to come.
Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post and Slate columnist. Her most recent book is Gulag: A History.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Today I feel...

Today I feel like a quarter-note rest in the symphony of life.