Dispatches > In Brief

In Brief

"In Brief" Continued...

Issue: "Tools of a tyrant," Aug. 10, 2002

Elite rumble

Louis Rukeyser is back on TV-and still fighting with his former colleagues in public broadcasting. Now he competes with his old Wall Street Week show, and both sides may wind up losers thanks to the split in elite viewership. Mr. Rukeyser is the grand old man of business commentary. While his audience is small, he attracts a special crowd: old school, old money, and fiscally conservative. Too old, apparently, for Maryland Public Television, which unloaded the 69-year-old host after 32 years. The commentator jumped at the chance to move to CNBC and now has a new show. But ratings so far have been low, even by Wall Street Week's standards. The new Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street averages 410,000 viewers in its Friday-night time slot. That's more than twice the usual rating for CNBC, but less than a quarter of the 1.7 million viewers for the original Wall Street Week show. The revamped Wall $treet Week with Fortune draws barely a million viewers.

Missing records

The controversial Church of Scientology is off the hook for now in France, where it is on a watch list of nearly 200 suspect "cult" groups. A Paris judge ruled that a 13-year-old criminal case accusing the group of fraud and illegal practice of medicine can't go to trial. She said authorities had dragged their feet in their investigation for more than three years, allowing the statute of limitations to expire. Mysteriously, in 1998, hundreds of documents that were to be used as evidence in the case disappeared from the Justice Ministry. | Edward E. Plowman

Budget's deficit

Budget is unbalanced. The world's third-largest car- and truck-rental company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week. The story is familiar: too much debt. In this case, the Daytona Beach-based Budget Group Inc. listed assets of $4.05 billion and debts of $4.33 billion. Blaming the post-9/11 decline as a major part of its troubles, CEO Sandy Miller said his company had "a level of nonvehicle debt greater than our operations can reasonably support." The current Budget Group actually started as a licensee called Team Rental that bought Budget from Ford Motor Company in 1997. Company stock peaked at $39 per share, but eventually sold for less than a quarter. Economic woes and the terrorism crisis have clearly hurt the rental-car industry, which relies heavily on business travelers. Rental companies also face the problem of consumer disloyalty: Numerous companies provide a similar service at similar rates, so the difference between one car-rental company and another is often insignificant (especially for those with expense accounts). Another major renter filed for bankruptcy several months ago. ANC Rental Corp., parent of the Alamo Rent-A-Car and National Car Rental brands, made its move last November. The company has tried to combine its two operations at several airports, fighting bankruptcy court opposition from Hertz and Avis.

Mnemonic device

Ever have trouble remembering names? A consulting company has cooked up a device that may help-but may also scare away potential conversation partners. The invention, known as the Accenture Personal Awareness Assistant, constantly records the previous 60 seconds of conversation in its memory. Then when you say the phrase "nice to meet you," it permanently stores the previous 10 seconds and the next five seconds of conversations. The idea is that this will capture a person's name for future reference. To capture a longer stretch of talk, a user says the phrase "Oh, that's interesting." The Assistant includes a wearable computer (worn around the user's waist), an earphone, microphone, and camcorder batteries. The prototype originally contained a tiny camera, but that was removed due to privacy concerns and technical problems. The device's maker, Accenture Technology Labs, focuses on technologies that may not attract users for several years, and this device isn't ready for everyday use. The Assistant itself is big and cumbersome, and people today aren't inclined to walk around carrying computers that can record conversations. Dana Le, leader of the project, said the privacy issue was one reason the Assistant prototype was built as a large, bulky device. "Etiquette will grow up around it when people know devices like this exist," she said. "But right now, it's important to be obtrusive." | Chris Stamper

Church, state, and courts

Did Louisiana violate the Constitution by promoting religion in its funding of sexual-abstinence programs? A federal judge in New Orleans ruled that it did, and on July 25 he ordered a halt to all such funding. In response, Gov. Mike Foster said that the government tells grant applicants they cannot use the money for religious purposes, and he will act to ensure the grant program is in compliance with the law (see "The method proven 100% effective," June 15). In Massachusetts, the parents of 7-year-old Laura M. Greska sued the Leominster school system last month. They charged school officials violated her speech and religious freedom rights during a holiday show-and-tell. According to their federal lawsuit, Laura's second-grade teacher asked students to bring books to class about their Christmas traditions. After some students read from books about Santa Claus and other holiday customs, it was Laura's turn. She pulled out a book about Jesus, The First Christmas. Her teacher forbade her to read from it. The parents complained to the principal, who said students could "share books about their Christmas traditions so long as those books were not religious." The Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice intervened on Laura's behalf and asked the school officials to reverse their decision. They refused. "This is a troubling example of a school district that is clearly exhibiting hostility toward religion, ACLJ lawyer Vincent McCarthy said. Attorneys with the state unit of the American Civil Liberties Union agreed. In Connecticut, Boy Scout officials say they will appeal a July 22 decision by a federal judge in Hartford. He ruled the state did not violate the Scouts' rights when it removed the group from a list of charities on the payroll deduction plan for state employees. A state panel removed the Scouts from the list in 2000, after a human-rights commission found that including the organization on the list violates state anti-discrimination laws. It cited the Scouts' ban on homosexual troop leaders. | Edward E. Plowman

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