Teen-Jewelry Retailer Claires Seeks Debt Swap to Cut Borrowings

Claires Stores Inc., the struggling tween-jewelry retail chain, is asking bondholders to exchange almost $800 million of notes for new loans that would cut the companys debt load and buy it more time to turn around its business.

The Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based company, seeking to rein in the debt it took on in a 2007 leveraged buyout by Apollo Global Management LLC, is offering to swap three securities with $796.5 million of outstanding principal for as much as $230 million of new 9 percent term loans due 2021, the company said in an Aug. 12 statement. Some of the new senior loans would be backed by certain of the companys assets, Claires said. As part of the exchange, the company would complete a refinancing transaction with lenders under its existing $115 million revolving credit facility, it said.

The offer is conditioned on a minimum of $400 million of notes being tendered in the exchange offer, the company said. The parent of Claires and funds managed by affiliates of Apollo hold about $242 million of subordinated notes issued by the retailer. While they wont participate in the exchange, they have agreed to do a similar debt exchange if participation falls short, according to the statement.

Claires deal for bondholders comes after the retailer lost about $514 million over the past three years as mall traffic slowed, competition from online and specialty stores gained momentum, and a rising U.S. dollar crimped overseas sales and profits. The companys notes are trading at distressed prices, with its $450 million of 8.875 percent second-lien notes maturing 2019 priced at a six-month low. The price of Claires $320 million of 7.75 percent senior unsecured notes maturing 2020 are trading at their lowest levels since June 2014.

Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com//news/articles/2016-08-13/teen-jewelry-retailer-claire-s-seeks-debt-swap-to-cut-borrowings

The Olympics Brings in Billions, But Not For Athletes. Here’s One Fix

When the Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin won gold earlier this weekas part of the U.S. mens freestyle 4-by-100 relay team that helped Michael Phelps win his 20th career gold medalhe tied the record for the longest span between medals (his last win was in 2000). But he might not have made it at all without the hundreds of fans who helped finance his journey back.

This year, more Olympic athletes have used crowdfunding to reach the Games than ever before. Sites such as Dreamfuela fundraising site for elite athletes that Ervin inspiredhelp solve a familiar dilemma: The Olympics brings in billions of dollars in ticketing, sponsorships, and broadcast revenue, yet individual athletes see very little of it. While no comprehensive studies exist, surveys of track-and-field athletes suggest that top-10 contenders make less than $16,000 per year. A recent Washington Post investigation reported that most U.S. Olympic athletes cannot earn enough from their sports to make a living.”

“We realized there’s this huge fundraising problem in sports at the youth level, and then a very sorely needed revenue stream for pretty much every elite athlete except for the 1-percenters,” says Dreamfuel founder Emily White. “So they have flocked to us, without much recruitment.”

For White, Dreamfuel was a melding of her two passions: water sports and rock and roll. The daughter and granddaughter of swim coaches, she was a state champion in high school and attended Northeastern University on a swimming scholarship. But then she found herself on a different pathtour-managing a local punk-cabaret act called the Dresden Dolls. A decade later, having founded her own company managing rock stars, she happened across a swimmer who, it seemed, was already a rock star.

Anthony Ervin
Photographer: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

More than a decade earlier, in 2000, Anthony Ervin had won Olympic gold at the age of 19. Then he left the sport for a decadeto play in bands and wander the world and take recreational drugsonly to reemerge, in 2012, when he once again made the Olympic team. He wasnt just good; he was cool. Cool enough to land a Rolling Stone profile. His social-media numbers were through the roof.

White found Ervin on Twitter and noticed he was a big music fan. Being in the music business, the bandsor their managers, or their social media folkswere people she knew. Soon, the Smashing Pumpkins and Alabama Shakes were tweeting Good luck at him. After his London games, White cold-e-mailed him, hoping to become his manager, and they met up in New York.

She was shocked to discover that he was brokedespite his popularity, he was, as she puts it, left to his own devices. He was preparing to compete in the World Cup circuit, one of the pathways to the Olympics. It was too late to find a sponsor, so his plan was to put the expenses on his credit card, then hope he won some prize money to pay off the debt.

White remembered how her former client, Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer, had raised more than $1 million on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to fund a solo album and a tour. So she suggested Ervin try it out.

Ervins answer: Whats Kickstarter?

White realized that most athleteseven smart, pop-culture-savvy athletes like Ervinhad never heard of crowdfunding. And the established crowdfunding sites didnt quite know what to do with athletes, either. When White and Ervin approached Kickstarters founders with a campaign to get Ervin to the World Cup, they were turned down.

So they set out to do it themselves. In the end, they raised more money than they asked for, and Ervin came back from the World Cup circuit with 16 medals, nine of them gold, and an American record.

Out of that effort grew Dreamfuel. Although the money raised via the site has thus far been modest$80,000 in total donationstheyve already seen outsize results, with campaigns by past Olympic medalists Roland Schoeman (South Africa), Margaux Farrell (France), and Americans Kim Vandenberg and Chelsea Hayes. In Rio this week, Dreamfuel athletes include South Africas Chad Ho, Puerto Ricos Erik Risolvato, Sierra Leones Hafsatu Kamara, Syrias Azad Al-Barazi, and American Kelsey Campbell.

We did very little user outreach, which is kind of crazy in tech world, White says. There was such a need in sports fundraising, both at the youth and elite level, that athletes have been coming to us.

Dreamfuel is competing in an arena that’s booming at the moment. While Kickstarter isn’t in the sports game, crowdfunding platform GoFundMe says sports now account for “hundreds of millions” in donationsfrom Little League teams raising money for new jerseys to elite athletes looking to offset the costs of competing.

Like White, GoFundMe’s chief executive officer,  Rob Solomon, was also an elite athleteat UC Berkeley, he was an All-American water polo star and a two-time NCAA National Champion, and some of his teammates ended up in the Olympics. Yes, the Usain Bolts and the Michael Phelpses and Katie Ledeckys and the amazing gymnasts will get endorsements, and have lucrative deals, and their costs will be covered by their respective federations, Solomon says. The average Olympic athlete doesn’t get that. The very eliteand you can probably name only 10 or 20 of them from our countryhave a pretty easy path. But the majority of them don’t. 

In 2016, GoFundMe has been used to raise nearly $800,000 by more than 100 athletes with a shot at the Olympics, including American decathlete Jeremy Taiwo, a second-generation Olympian who won GoFundMes $10,000 prize for raising the most money during a several-week sprint. Solomon says the company has also seen an uptick in family members of Olympians raising money for travel expenses to Rioincluding the families of U.S. silver medalist Chase  Kalisz, and swimmer Caeleb Dressel, whos part of the same U.S. relay team that won gold with Phelps and Ervin. The father of an Olympic shot put athlete was retired and driving Uber to make ends meet when a passenger offered to help him set up a GoFundMe campaign; the story went viral, and the father raised more than $8,000.

White is pursuing similar territory. A Dreamfuel program aimed at helping the families of Olympic athletes led to the companys best month to dateJuly revenue alone doubled their combined year-to-date total. She says her companys focus on sports is already paying off: We’ve had quite a few athletes leave generic, white-label platforms as soon as they find out about Dreamfuel, because they don’t necessarily want to be on a platform with kids raising [money] for college debt.

Shes also worked with Dreamfuels athletes and families on compliance issues. All Rio athletes are constrained by Rule 40, an extraordinarily complex and controversial set of restrictions that prohibit brands and athletes from using many Olympic-specific terms and images, even on social media. And Olympians who are also college athletessuch as American swimmer Cierra Runge, whos using Dreamfuel to get her mom to Riomust abide by NCAA regulations, which prohibit athletes from profiting on their images or autographs. [Runges mother] came up with a lot of really cool rewards, and we had to nix a bunch of thembecause we need to be within NCAA rules. Instead, her mom offered an energy-ball recipe. We’re encouraging the families to send postcards from Rio and Instagram shots dedicated to the supporters and things like that.

As much as its kind of a bummer, and a shock to the families, there’s quite a few athletes and families in violation on GoFundMe, because they don’t know the rules, White says. So by working with Dreamfuel, we know the rules.

Solomon says he hasnt heard of any GoFundMe campaigns being targeted by the Olympics, and that the onus is on the athlete to make sure they’re not running afoul of Rule 40 or anything like that. Still, its worth noting that GoFundMes landing page for its Olympics athletes used to contain the word Olympics; it now refers, more generically, to Competing in Rio.

As Ervin prepares to go for gold during his individual events on Thursday and Friday, the company is already planning a rollout aimed at expanding the platform in the fall.

People think we’re an Olympics-focused site, and we’re not, she says. We want to revolutionize youth sports, we want to eliminate the clipboard. The fact that I can provide a new revenue stream for elite athletes is awesome, but they’re coming to us because they need it.

Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-11/the-olympics-brings-in-billions-but-not-for-athletes-here-s-one-fix

Investing in Venezuela Could Be Hugely Profitable or Potentially Lethal

Barclays Plc has decided that Venezuela is too dangerous for its bond-investor clients. No, not as in default kind of dangerous. Sure thats possible but Barclays is more worried right now about things like kidnapping and murder.

Last month, the bank canceled a trip to take a group of money managers to Caracas after its security team deemed the trip unwise without significantly enhanced safety measures, according to an e-mail sent to investors that was obtained by Bloomberg News.

The decision highlights an unusual point of tension in this nook of the bond world. At a time when interest rates are near zero or even negative in many countries across the globe, the 23 percent yield offered by Venezuelas benchmark dollar bonds stands out as a rare opportunity for the bravest of investors to make a big score. Before taking that plunge and buying the debt of a nation mired in crisis, though, investors will typically want to see the place first-hand, talk to government officials and business executives and assess the mood on the ground. In Venezuela, that means walking into a country convulsed by an economic collapse, spontaneous street protests and soaring crime.

QuickTake Venezuela on the Brink

While JPMorgan Chase & Co. went through with a client trip several weeks ago and Bank of America Corp. plans on going ahead with one scheduled for next month, Barclays told clients including Pharo Management and Blackstone NWI Asset Management that the risk was too great. Scheduled for the week of July 11, the trip was to give them face-time with a top economic aide to President Nicolas Maduro, leaders of the opposition and experts on the countrys oil industry, according to a copy of the itinerary.

The situation in Venezuela is more concerning than was previously considered, Ellis Thomas, the banks head of emerging-market credit sales, and Alejandro Arreaza, the economist for Venezuela, said in the e-mail informing clients that the trip was canceled.

Barclays analyzes travel requests on a case-by-case basis and doesnt rule out green-lighting trips to Caracas again in the future, according to a person familiar with the firms policies. Spokesman Marc Hazelton declined to comment.

U.S. Warning

Home to the worlds third-highest homicide rate, Venezuela has long been one of the globes most dangerous places. As the collapse in oil prices deepened the economic crisis and exacerbated food shortages, crime has become widespread. That has in turn fueled vigilante justice: a rash of mob lynchings, predominantly in poorer neighborhoods, has swept across the country this year.

While bank-organized treks to Caracas, like the Barclays outing, tend to largely keep travelers in the wealthier, and safer, eastern part of the city, risks still abound. In March, an Egyptian tourist was murdered in an attempted robbery just feet outside the international airports doors, the local press reported. And one day before Barclays canceled its trip, the U.S. State Department renewed its travel warning for the South American country, saying crime is even common in areas generally presumed safe and frequented by tourists.

An added concern is that people perceived to be carrying dollars attract attention in a country where inflation is spiraling out of control, according to Raul Gallegos, a senior analyst at political and security risk consulting firm Control Risks. It labels Caracas a very high risk area, just one notch below the rating it gives to places in civil war.

Ill go to Nigeria, I was in Turkey right before the coup, but Venezuelas just a little too tense, said Ray Zucaro, the chief investment officer of emerging-markets hedge fund RVX Asset Management in Miami and the husband of a Venezuelan native. Its just a bad spot.

The countrys bonds, though, are so tempting. In recent days alone, Goldman Sachs Asset Management and BlueBay Asset Management both said the debt looks attractive. The benchmark notes due 2027 yield some 18 percentage points more than the emerging-market average, according to JPMorgan indexes. While concern has been building for the past two years that a default was imminent, the government has managed to scrounge together the funds to remain current on its foreign debt and insists it will continue to do so.

Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com//news/articles/2016-08-11/scarier-than-default-risks-loom-for-bond-investors-in-venezuela

I Just Drove Eight Hours on Tesla Autopilot and Lived to Tell the Tale

I knew Tesla had a problem when everyone started telling me to be safe.

I was getting ready to embark on a 550-mile road trip in a $145,000 Tesla Model S. Id be driving through the twisted passes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and I couldnt imagine a more enjoyable vehicle for the journey. But when I mentioned the trip to friends and family, all they wanted to talk about was a recent crash involving Autopilot, Teslas version of cruise controlon steroids. 

Is it safe? they asked. Even my wife, who has driven a Tesla and wants to buy a Model 3, said, as I was leaving: Dont do any dangerous Autopilot stuff.

What does that even mean? 

Autopilot was engaged during a horrific broadside accident made public in June, and its no exaggeration to say that it has changed the way people think about self-driving cars. It was only a matter of time before something like this happenedcars kill people all the timebut that didnt stop the swift and stern rebuke that followed. Consumer Reports went so far as to call on Tesla to revoke the features until changes were made. Safety regulators are investigating. 

This is a real problem for Tesla because Autopilot is, at its core, a suite of features designed to make driving safer: lane-keeping, emergency braking, collision avoidanceit pays attention when you dont. The Model S is, quite possibly, the safest car on the road today, with or without Autopilot.  

The logical part of me knew all of this, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it when I picked up the loaner Model S at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. After a few minutes familiarizing myself with the car’s cockpit, I clicked through the warnings to enable the suite of Autopilot options without much thought, and I was off. 

Cruise control on steroids

The first thing to know about a Tesla on Autopilot is that it is not a self-driving car. Think of it instead as the next level of cruise control. Pull the lever once, and the car takes over acceleration and deceleration. Pull the lever twice, and it takes over the steering, too.

Under the right conditions, Autopilot will accelerate itself from a dead stop, keep you locked in your lane during hairpin turns, and slam on the brakes to avoid collisions. It handles stop-and-go traffic beautifully. The limitations, however, become clear pretty quicklyas when I almost plowed into an SUV. 

As I settled into my long mountain ascent, I engaged the cars turn signal feature, which changes lanes at the flick of a finger. The sensors failed to register a rapidly accelerating gold-colored SUV beside me and would have driven directly into its path had I not quickly taken over. (I got a well-deserved honk instead.)

Stop goofing off. 
Photographer: David Paul Morris

This wasnt a fluke. Normally, when changing lanes, the car will sense adjacent traffic and wait for an appropriate time to merge, but the nearsighted sensors didnt see this one coming. The cars front-facing radar and camera can see much farther than the ultrasonic sensors on the rear and sides of the car, which have a range of only about 16 feet. 

For another example of Autopilots limitations, take it for a spin along the scenic mountain switchbacks that surround Lake Tahoe. (No, actually, please dont.) The narrow roads are literally eroding off the mountain in places, and the lane markers are faint. I engaged Autosteering to see what would happen, and had to immediately take over before it drove me right off the edge of the dazzling cliffs of Emerald Bay.

It can drive you off a cliff, and thats all right

These may seem like egregious failures of an unsafe systembut compared with what? Its only a failure if youre thinking about a Tesla as a self-driving car that just isnt up to the task. Its not that car. Consider this: If a Toyota driver had standard cruise control set for 70 miles per hour on the highway and failed to take over and reduce speed for a 25 mph turn, would we blame the cruise control for the resulting crash? Relinquishing full control to Autopilot is no different.

When the conditions are right, Autopilot unburdens us of the most tedious tasks of driving. The machine maintains a fidelity to the center of the lane when humans would stray. It stops and goes with traffic and adjusts with the speed limit. It liberates drivers to look up, enjoy the view, groove to the music and engage with their children. And that, of course, is Autopilots biggest weakness: the distractible human driver.

The driver in the fatal Autopilot crashthe only fatality in 140 million miles clocked on the systemwas reportedly watching a movie when his car hit the side of a 50-foot semi. He never applied the brakes. He was an Autopilot enthusiast who had clocked 45,000 miles on his Tesla and posted YouTube videos showing off the technology, including one in which Autopilot prevented an accident. He knew its limits welllimits that a driver can choose to ignore. Autopilot makes that easy to do. 

When I drove the Model S with a careful eye on the road, theres no question that I was a better driver with Autopilot engaged. Theres also no question that I spent less time with a careful eye on the road. Tesla should probably do more to make sure drivers check in with the steering wheel more often, and perhaps be more liberal about when it makes Autosteering unavailable because of poorly marked lanes and uncertain conditions. 

The next phase may be even riskier

The evolution of autonomous driving is approaching one of its most dangerous phases, when the system is so close to being truly autonomous that the driver often forgets it’s not. Next year, Tesla will release its mass-market Model 3 to a much wider audience than its current slate of affluent early adopters. It is expected to come equipped with a significantly more advanced level of Autopilot technologyincluding features that might truly confuse the boundary between driver and car.

In this brave, new world, there may be a window of time in which crashes caused by inattentive Autopilot drivers outnumber those prevented by the feature. But just as we dont remove radios and standard cruise control from carsboth of which can also lead to inattentive driverstheres an argument that we shouldnt hold back autonomous driving. By next year, Tesla will have collected data from a billion miles of Autopilot use, and it wont be long before the lives saved may vastly outpace risk from the imperfect human. 

On my Tesla Autopilot road trip, I pushed the technology to find its limits, as many drivers will do. I tried to pay close attention while I was doing it, which many drivers wont. If I had a 16-year-old with a drivers license, would I want him to have access to the current iteration of Autopilot? Honestly, probably not. But Im glad I have the choice. 

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Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com//news/articles/2016-08-10/i-just-drove-8-hours-on-tesla-autopilot-and-lived-to-tell-the-tale

Forget DisneyInside Legolands Small-Town Strategy

Inside a Goshen, N.Y., catering hall, a crowd of locals gathered last month, playing with miniature Lego blocks and posing with life-size brick characters. They were waiting to hear how a British company planned to build a huge amusement park in their midst.

When the well-coiffed representatives of London’s Merlin Entertainments Plc appeared, they explained to the skeptical crowd why their small town, some 60 miles north of New York City and miles from mass transit, would be a great location for North Americas third Legoland, along with a Lego-themed aquarium and a Lego-themed hotel. At least one of the towns denizens wasnt swayed.

They come in and say theyre going to be good neighbors, Debra Corr, a Goshen resident, said of the Legoland proposal. Theyre not good neighbors.

If youve ever touched a wax statue or taken a selfie with a 6-foot Lego figurine, chances are youve been to a Merlin Entertainments-operated attraction. Though the corporate entity lacks name recognition in the U.S., its brands are somewhat better-known: Madame Tussauds, Sea Life, the London Eye, and of course Legoland. As the second largest theme park group in the world by attendance, Merlin boasts 62.9 million visitors a year, according to data collected by the Themed Entertainment Association, or TEA. But being No. 2 doesnt mean Merlin is anywhere close to the industry leader. Walt Disney Attractions gets more than twice as many visitors and dominates the list of most-attended parks. None of Merlins parks is even among the top 25 most visited globally. 

Legoland parks are highly interactive, more so than other amusement parks, allowing children to build their own creations. At its California location is a miniature Highlights of America tour, including all the nations top attractions constructed from the ubiquitous little blocks. Theres also a Lego movie theater featuring its trademark blockbusters, meet-and-greets with the characters, and all the mechanical rides and roller coasters typical of a theme park. 

Legoland Florida’s water park.
Photographer: Marjie Lambert/MCT via Getty Images

As family-friendly as that sounds, the regional U.S. amusement park industry is pretty unpleasant. Data kept by the National Amusement Park Historical Association shows that while 27 parks have opened around the country since 2010, 55 have closed. Even a tourist-saturated location doesnt guarantee success: Hard Rock Park in visitor-heavy Myrtle Beach, S.C., shut after less than a year, struck down by the Great Recession. For these reasons, a Goshen Legoland is far from a guaranteed success. 

With four venues outside the U.S. and two more on the way, Merlin has been eyeing expansion into the Northeastern U.S. for some time. Rather than go head to head with the giant mouse, the company has fashioned a midsize strategy, as underlined in a 2014 TEA report. In it, the association noted that while Merlin Entertainments continued its upward momentum, it faces a somewhat mixed picture for their midway attractions. The report cites political unrest affecting projects in Thailand, poor weather on the U.S. East Coast, and a delay in the capital investment program.

Even with these challenges, the company has grand plans for America, seeking to replicate its successful midsize seasonal parks in Denmark, the U.K., and Germany. It has no desire to try to match the scale of the small cities built by Disney: Merlins Florida Legoland is, at 150 acres, only a small fraction of the 40 square miles that constitute the nearby Walt Disney World Resort. Focusing on the midsize market gives Merlin a unique advantage in the themed attractions business, said Jim Futrell, historian for the Pittsburgh’s National Amusement Park Historical Association, because development costs tend to be lower. These smaller parks help them  define their niche, which is families with preteen children,” Futrell said. “Scattering a number of smaller parks, vs. having a Disney-style [park], can draw a big customer base.

But first, Merlin has to win over the good people of Goshen. 

Not in my backyard

Before Goshen, Merlin explored building a Legoland in Virginia. More recently, the company looked at two towns closer to New York CityHaverstraw and Suffern. Locals there didnt rush to embrace the amusement park, either. We didnt want to divide our community, Haverstraw town supervisor Howard T. Phillips Jr. said, expressing regret that his town lost out. Merlin said its park, wherever it landed, would create 800 local construction jobs, 500 full-time, year-round jobs and 800 part-time and seasonal positions. 

The not-in-my-backyard mentality extended upstate to Goshen. While some area residents support the arrival of the theme park, others asked questions about traffic patterns, taxes, and even infrastructureallotment of fire and police department staff were discussed. There were concerns the water system wasnt designed to handle an influx of Lego enthusiasts (a worry alleviated by an independent analysis that found the systems are sufficient). Whether or not Merlin can plow ahead in Goshen will depend largely on whether the towns 14,000 residents can be persuaded that as many as 20,000 visitors each day of the season will be a blessing, not a curse.

We know there are some who are opposed to the park, but we are finding we have many more residents who support it because of the many long-term benefits it will bring to Goshen and greater Orange County, a Legoland spokeswoman said in a statement. Among those benefits are the economic runoff to local businesses and the potential tax income.

Legoland, however, has also requested a 30-year payment in lieu of taxes, allowing it to forego property taxes on the 523-acre site. Instead, it wants to pay a total of $52.6 million, as well as community fees calculated per visitor totaling $39 million (based on 2 million visitors per year). The company will also pay sales and hotel taxes over the 30-year period, but the tax exemption request still drew the ire of locals. TEA President Steve Birket noted that such provisions are common, and Legoland said the agreement is essential for this project to move forward.

The court of public opinion is an important part of this discussion, said Lee Huang, senior vice president and principal of Econsult Solutions Inc., an urban planning firm. He says amusement parks can yield benefits for the towns where theyre built. But he added that no matter how good the deal, projects like the one proposed for Goshen cant get off the ground without community support. They are literally and figuratively playing host. 

Legoland in Carlsbad, California.
Photographer: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

Location, location, location

Taking the kids to Disney is an event, one that typically requires airline tickets, hotel stays. and several thousand dollars. As a result, Disneys parks are referred to as destination attractions because they are impressive enough to draw out-of-towners for extended stays. Smaller, more remote parks are referred to as regional parks. And many of these (as would be the case with Legoland Goshen) are seasonal, and thus intensely dependent on a good summer turnout. Disneys established destination parks operate year round. 

Disney doesnt have to go anywhere. People come to them. People fly in from all over the world, explained Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Paul Sweeney, who focuses on amusement parks. Disney properties draw globally. Everyone else draws locally. Disney representatives didnt immediately return an e-mail seeking comment.

Legolands New York location will be the first of its American parks that isnt Disney-adjacent. In Florida and California, its parks are situated within Disney’s orbit, close enough to peel away visitors for a day of brick building. In Orlando, Fla., home to Disney and essentially America’s theme park capital, Merlin operates a shuttle bus that takes visitors to the Legoland in Winter Haven, about 45-minutes away. It’s not Orlando, but it draws from Orlando, explained Birket. Amusement park historian Futrell added: There was a lot of skepticism in the Orlando theme park community: Will this park an hour outside the theme park hub be able to survive? Merlin has done a good job tying it in.

In New York, Futrell hypothesizes that Merlin could leverage its existing attractions in the Big Apple to draw people up to Legoland. In Times Square, Madame Tussauds is a hugely popular attraction, and there is a Lego Discovery Center in Yonkers, just north of the city. Would Merlin run a shuttle from either or both of these locations to the Goshen Legoland? Legoland wouldnt comment beyond saying its in the early stages of looking at transportation options. There are no train stations in Goshen. The closest one with a direct route from the city, in Middletown, N.Y, is about seven miles away.

Legoland as destination

While Sweeney argues that Disney is the king of destination parks, and Legoland is generally seen as regional, Merlin says the Goshen location can be a destination

We will draw people from as far as Boston and Philadelphia in addition to New York City. We would expect it to be a destination park with one-third tourists, one-third locals, and one-third day trippers in terms of guests who would visit, the company says. At the catering hall open house, the Merlin representative said that would include international tourists. 

But industry findings cast doubt on these projections: The majority of theme park visitors, some 64 percent, stay only for the day, according to a 2011 survey by the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions. Only about 25 percent said they were willing to stay overnight. 

Nevertheless, Futrell says Legoland Goshen could prove a success given Legos name recognition, unique attractions, and themed hotels. I think any location challenges can be mitigated a lot by the quality of the product, he said. You have to be a very smart operator, and in the case of Merlin, they know what they’re getting into.

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Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com//news/articles/2016-08-11/forget-disney-inside-legoland-s-small-town-strategy

The high-stakes battle to protect Lebanon’s lush Adonis Valley

Image: Habib Battah

JANNAH, Lebanon At the bottom of a lush valley between rocky peaks of Mount Lebanon, strawberry farmer John Abu Akar may be the last man standing in the path of a dam project worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But he has a few tricks up his sleeve.

When a minister’s motorcade of tinted-window SUVs rolled through his village in 2012 to announce the multinational project, Abu Akar sabotaged the signs directing visitors to the location of a press conference so they pointed instead down the gravel path leading to his farm. Around 10 black American-model vehicles soon pulled in; security agents jumped out and confronted Abu Akar. Unaware that they were in the wrong place, they demanded he move his car from where it was parked in front of his house. They told him they worked for Gebran Bassil, one of Lebanon‘s most prominent politicians and the dam’s chief proponent.

Blocking the river and building the Jannah Dam will require flattening up to 500 acres of hillside forest.

“Who is he? What does he do for a living?” Abu Akar asked them, playing dumb. Sitting on his porch with a beer in hand, the half-shaved 37-year-old recalls the story with a wry smile as the Abraham River rushes behind him. “We made fun of them a little,” he says, laughing.

Four years later, the reality is more sobering. Work on the dam, which will be one of the biggest in the Arab world if completed, began last year, leaving wide swaths of the valley carved out and thousands of trees bulldozed. (A claimed completion date of 2016 seems unlikely to be met.) Most of the farms and homes in Abu Akar’s village, known as Jannah Arabic for “paradise” have been leveled. Jannah sits on the upper banks of the Abraham River, which runs beneath snowcapped peaks to the Mediterranean Sea, about 12 miles downstream from Abu Akar’s home. It cuts a winding path through the verdant Adonis Valley, which is lined with waterfalls and natural springs, and home to some 700 animal and plant species, making it one of the most biodiverse regions in the Middle East.

Experts warn that blocking the river and building the dam, which will require flattening up to 500 acres of hillside forest, will not only stifle the river flow and destroy natural habitats but endanger a vast underground network of aquifers that feed Beirut’s primary water source, the Jeita spring. The spring, 20 miles southwest of Jannah, produces a subterranean river that courses through the Jeita caverns, a major tourist attraction and a symbol of national pride seen on postcards and currency notes.

A hydrologist, a resident, an activist and a conservation manager share their concerns about the Jannah Dam.

Cutting off the flow of the river could significantly drain the Jeita spring, according to the Hannover, Germanybased Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, which conducted a multiyear study of the project. Thus providing electricity and water to one part of Lebanon may threaten the water supply of its capital. The institute also found that because the dam is to be built on a porous rock formation, most of the 10 billion gallons of water proponents claim it will store will be lost, absorbed by the earth.

“In view of the current findings, it is strongly recommended not to go ahead with the construction” planned, the institute concluded in 2012.

But for Lebanon’s politically ambitious Ministry of Energy and Water, the Jannah Dam will be nothing short of a miraculous feat of human over nature, providing much-needed water and electricity to surrounding towns. A promotional video by a local contractor bears a strong resemblance to a trailer for an action film, complete with dramatic music, explosions and title cards bearing phrases, such as “They accepted the challenge” and “Failure is not an option.”

Despite the Lebanese state commissioning the German institute to undertake its study, which involved three years of field testing, the Ministry of Energy and Water’s advisers have dismissed the results as “totally wrong” and politically motivated. They have also rejected the complaints of Minister of the Environment Mohammad Machnouk, who said the project failed to provide an adequate environmental impact study and lacked approval from his office.

Strawberry farmer John Abu Akars family was among the first to settle the Adonis Valley, and he is one of its last residents, now that construction has begun on a dam that will submerge it. Hes ambivalent about whether he will leave or continue to fight the dam.

Image: Habib Battah

Yet the digging and razing continues. The Ministry of Energy and Water places the initial budget at around $300 million, which includes the cost of a hydroelectric plant and the 300-foot-high dam.

Activists and environmental experts say the budget is likely to mushroom to closer to $1 billion when factoring in the costs of land purchases, annual maintenance and a tunneling system to deliver the water. The principal contractor, Brazilian conglomerate Andrade Gutierrez, made headlines last year when its chief officers were arrested in So Paulo as part of an alleged corruption scheme to inflate prices on major projects. The firm paid $286 million to settle the charges in a plea deal reached in May. Dam opponents say the company’s track record gels with postwar Lebanon’s notorious record for state corruption and white elephant infrastructure projects.

“It’s the destruction of a whole ecosystem.”

“Look at all the projects that happen in Lebanon none have been produced at estimated cost; all of them have been constructed at subpar quality,” says Karim Eid-Sabbagh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of London who studies the political economy of water and natural resources management in Lebanon. Jannah, he believes, “will not ever produce what [government officials] are claiming. It’s just money out the window.”

Aside from wasted funds, experts say the dam will exact a heavy toll on the environment.

“You won’t have any biodiversity. You will have a catastrophic situation: missing trees, more erosion, habitats of species gone,” says Roland Riachi, a water management expert and a researcher and lecturer at the American University of Beirut. “Even sand on the beaches comes from rivers. It’s the destruction of a whole ecosystem.”

Abu Akar, too, thinks about the effect on the valley’s wildlife, which includes populations of wolves, hyenas, boars, hyraxes and birds: “What will the animals drink when the river runs dry?”

The Phoenicians used the Abraham River to float timber from the Adonis Valley to the Mediterranean port of Byblos, from where it was shipped to pharaonic Egypt. Later, seeing how many of the valleys trees had been felled, Roman Emperor Hadrian banned logging in the area, making it perhaps the worlds first protected forest.

Image: Habib Battah

Its human presence dating to antiquity, the Adonis Valley is named after the Phoenician deity, the favorite lover of Aphrodite, whose killing by a wild boar, legend has it, is what turns the river red once every year. (More likely, the hue comes from sediment that pours through at the end of the winter.)

All along the banks of the valley’s Abraham River are temples to Adonis and other archaeological sites, including Ottoman-era mills and stone bridges. It is believed that the Phoenicians used the river to float timber to their Mediterranean port of Byblos, from where it was shipped to Egypt to build furniture, rooftops and ships for the pharaohs. A thousand years later, the Romans built a series of staircases throughout the Adonis that connected it to their temples and palaces in the Bekaa Valley; portions of the route still can be traversed. Following logging of the valley by successive civilizations, from the Babylonians to the Persians, the Roman Emperor Hadrian banned the felling of trees in the first century, making the region one of the worlds first protected forest reserves. Latin inscriptions announcing the prohibition can be seen carved into boulders across the valley.

Environmental activists say dam builders have chopped down thousands of trees, and that the number could reach as high as 300,000 or more. Drone video captured from above the area by the Lebanon Eco Movement, an association of environmental organizations, reveals the scale of the destruction: Bald, crumbling mountains are a stark contrast to the green hillsides that will be razed next. The flow of the river is slowing from the buildup of debris; its surface is covered in a thick layer of algae.

The destruction is sure to affect the 16,000-acre Jabal Moussa Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-recognized biosphere a few miles downriver from the dam site that is recognized as a protected forest by the Ministry of Agriculture. Two thousand years after Hadrian’s declaration, “we have ministers who laugh at you if you say you don’t want to cut down [trees],” says Joelle Barakat, conservation manager for the Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa.

During summer Sundays, narrow roads leading through the reserve are thronged with cars and buses full of families out to picnic and camp along the riverbank. Since its establishment in 2007, the reserve has been producing maps and publications categorizing and documenting the hundreds of flora and fauna species native to the area, and carving paths to archaeological sites such as the Hadrian inscriptions and the Adonis temples.

Barakat says the reserve receives 10,000 visitors per year, which it hopes to boost by supporting family-owned inns.

Image: Map illustration: Marc Fusco; base map: Getty Images

“We believe the importance of Jabal Moussa reserve stems from the Adonis Valley,” says Barakat. “The whole region is culturally linked to this valley. The dam will have a direct effect on the riparian ecosystem that is there it won’t be there anymore.”

The Ministry of Energy and Water maintains that the impact on nature will be limited, and that the number of trees cut so far is only 5,000 and will not exceed 50,000. Repeated attempts to contact the ministry went unanswered.

“Some environmental degradations are irreversible in nature, so their loss [exceeds the value of] any other good.”

Although Jannah is one of the largest state projects in Lebanon’s history, no environmental impact assessment was carried out before construction began. Public reviews are not protocol in Lebanon. Because sectarian politicians and affiliated sectarian media often scapegoat personalities and individual rivals rather than address broader, more complicated public service problems which could implicate the attackers’ own side as well such projects are seldom investigated and proceed with little oversight. Only after a group of hikers and environmentalists encountered signs in the valley announcing the project two years ago was a complaint lodged with the environment ministry.

With digging well under way, the study was eventually commissioned and then issued in June 2015 by Beirut civil engineering firm Gicome. It found that the project would “unavoidably cause negative effects on the local flora and fauna” and that “mitigation measures were proposed much too late since the implementation of the project has already started.” The study calculated environmental and social costs of the dam project would exceed $100 million a year, while noting that “some environmental degradations are irreversible in nature, so their loss [exceeds the value of] any other good.”

Gicome proposed an exhaustive and immediate survey of the site by “a specialized team of biodiversity experts and monitored throughout all stages of the project” to produce a “complete inventory of the biodiversity of Adonis Valley.” It also noted a “potential risk of landslides,” which “can affect the safety of the dam or reservoir.”

Other experts are convinced that the dam will not even succeed at its principal aim: retaining water. The entire Adonis Valley is underlain with porous karst stone foundations, jagged rocks ubiquitous throughout the country that give rise to the limestone caves, underwater aquifers and springs spread across Lebanon’s mountain ranges.

Video captured by a drone shows damage to the Adonis Valley as a result of construction on the Jannah Dam project.

Along dirt tracks on the drive to Jannah, recently carved wide for construction vehicles to pass, limestone facades are evident along the freshly cleaved mountainsides. A six-foot-wide cave opening can be spotted, partially obstructed by a pile of rock crushed to create an access road for construction vehicles and equipment. Inside are several deep crevices, one filled with stalactites hanging from its ceiling.

The valley floor’s permeability could cause the dam to lose more than two-thirds of the more than 10 billion gallons it aims to store, according to the German report. In a 2012 email obtained by TakePart, project leader Armin Margane pleaded with a senior Lebanese official at the state-run Council for Development and Reconstruction: “If construction of Jannah Dam goes ahead it would lead to a failed investment because at a cost of $300 million not more than around [2.6 billion gallons] of water could be stored.”

The Ministry of Energy and Water maintains it will seal the porous valley floor through grouting, a technique in which concrete is injected across the inundation area behind the dam. The German team described this move as “practically impossible” and maintained that any attempt to seal the valley floor would “significantly reduce” the flow to the Jeita spring, which it estimates provides 75 percent of Beiruts water.

Riachi says that even if grouting were attempted, the enormous amount of cement required would cause the project cost to balloon to at least three times the stated estimate. He uses an old Arabic proverb to make the point: “It would be like trying to tile the ocean floor.”

Several dams built on karst foundations, the permeability of which can compromise the integrity of the structure, have failed or faced severe problems in the United States. A 2009 report prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers noted that half the U.S. dams deemed “unsafe or critically near failure” were built on karst foundations.

“Numerous attempts at grouting solution features in karst have been ineffective,” and “grout has proven to be a short-term risk reduction measure,” it stated. The report concluded by listing a number of “minimum steps” to reduce failure, such as building deep underground walls to attempt to hold water back, though it does not indicate the success rate of such measures.

In Lebanon, the Chabrouh Dam also sits on karst rock. Researchers say it’s now leaking at a rate of 52 gallons per second.

Mosul Dam in Iraq, built on karstified rock in 1984, is facing the imminent threat of collapse, according to both Iraqi and American engineers. The Corps called the dam “the most dangerous in the world,” forecasting that a collapse could release a wave of water more than 40 feet high that would submerge Mosul and flood Baghdad, killing up to 1 million. Although warned repeatedly about the unstable nature of the rock by successive foreign consultants, Saddam Hussein’s regime ignored this advice and went ahead with the project, viewing it as a symbol of state power and vowing to use grouting as a solution.

Problems emerged two years after construction, when the structure was compromised as water running through the bedrock began eroding caves and causing them to expand. Despite a reported 104,000 tons of grout poured over the dam’s lifetime, new problems arose after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when the maintenance operation, which involved a 24-hour-a-day concrete injection schedule, came to a halt. At a height of 367 feet, Mosul Dam is only slightly taller than the Jannah Dam, although its carrying capacity is far smaller.

In Lebanon, the Chabrouh Dam, completed in 2007, also sits on karst rock. Researchers say the dam is now leaking at a rate of 52 gallons per second. The recently completed Brisa Dam is largely empty, as seen in pictures distributed by activists. The country’s largest dam, the Litani, built in the 1970s on the advice of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, has failed in its expectations to deliver water to farms across the arid Bekaa Valley. It now irrigates just 1.5 percent of Lebanese agriculture and leaks some 80 gallons per second, according to Riachi.

“These are all failures,” he says.

Another major concern is that the Adonis Valley is a high seismic activity zone, with three fault lines traversing the axis of the proposed dam, according to a United Nations Development Programme preliminary study of the project in 2008. The presence of the faults was the study’s second-biggest concern following the presence of “pervious karst” beneath the dam axis.

Construction firm Andrade Gutierrez has rented storefront offices in Kartaba and covered the windows with decals showing a rendering of the dam it is building nearby. The firm recently settled corruption-related charges brought in Brazil, paying $286 million in fines.

Image: Habib Battah

In a conference hall at the new Hilton Beirut Habtoor Grand Hotel, which towers over the concrete sprawl of Beirut, a line of suit-wearing, stone-faced parliamentarians sat awaiting the start of a televised press conference. Hastily organized by the Ministry of Energy and Water in response to growing criticism of the Jannah Dam project, over the course of nearly two hours the June 3 conference paraded contractors, architects and project consultants before the cameras to present a series of charts, which they said proved their assessments of the project were sound.

In the front row were members of the political coalition supporting the dam project, led by Gebran Bassil the former minister whose route Abu Akar had blocked in 2012. A rising star in politics, Bassil, 46, now heads the Free Patriotic Movement, a powerful parliamentary bloc founded by his father-in-law, Michel Aoun, a former army commander. The station covering the event, known as a mouthpiece for Aoun, regularly panned its cameras toward Bassil and other members of his coalition.

Throughout multiple presentations, the German team was constantly dismissed as producing “a viewpoint,” not “science,” while its series of reports, released in 2012, were called “old,” allegedly disproved by subsequent tests carried out by the prominent local engineering firm Khatib & Alami. The company, which has executed a significant share of government contracts over the last several decades, also claims that soil samples from the site indicate an “excellent” quality of stone and “no possibility” of leakage. Khatib & Alami’s tests were not made available. It was largely a party affair; only a handful of journalists or average citizens attended, and there was no discussion of grouting and the industry-wide skepticism about it.

At one point, Khatib & Alami lead engineer Adel Abou Jaoude held up a printout of a report from the French consulting firm SAFEGE, highlighting one key sentence on an overhead projection: “We have a favorable view toward building the dam.” What Jaoude failed to mention were three subsequent paragraphs qualifying the statement with the condition that the floor of the dam reservoir be sealed or grouted to prevent leakage.

The report states this would be a “very difficult” task and could increase the costs of the project. The SAFEGE report confirms a positive soil finding on one side of the riverbank; testing on the other side the side especially rich in karst stone is pending.

Gebran Bassil, Lebanons minister of foreign affairs and former minister of energy and water, supports the building of the Jannah dam.

Image: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Raja Noujaim, a retired quality control expert and a leading activist resisting the Jannah project, believes the testing was performed deliberately on the less permeable sections of the river valley. He also points out that the SAFEGE report makes a series of vague and conditional statements and relies heavily on tests conducted by the government. Particularly curious is the discrepancy between the SAFEGE report presented at the conference and one that the firm released three months earlier that extends its reservations toward not only the waterproofing of the dam floor but also the dam foundations.

“They put them under pressure,” says Noujaim. “Otherwise they would not be paid.”

Riachi agrees: “SAFEGE initially said it was a bad site for a dam and then said their position was one of reservations.”

With near constant political instability and unregulated crony capitalism in Lebanon, maintenance of the dam could become a critical issue. The Lebanese state is infamous for its failure to maintain and deliver public services such as electricity and water. Despite billions in investment, the state electricity company’s power plants and transmission networks have suffered blackouts up to 12 hours per day for 30 years.

Garbage collection is equally problematic, with waste regularly dumped into rivers and rural areas or flushed untreated out to sea and a raft of failed sanitation and sewage projects. Beirut’s streets were lined with piles of trash last year following the overburdening of the country’s main landfill, due to a lack of oversight and planning by government bodies. Several municipalities resorted to burning their trash, sending cancerous toxins into the air, according to local university studies, which also warned of garbage residue from the piles seeping into groundwater and affecting agricultural production. The crisis, which led to extensive street protests, persists a year later, with plans now to create landfills along the Mediterranean, adding more pollution to existing sewage drains along the once pristine coast.

The nation’s potable water network is no outlier in the state of dysfunction. Tap water runs only a few hours per day; most households are equipped with plastic rooftop reservoirs, and residents are often reduced to buying water from private trucks. Because neither the tap water nor the private supply is treated, nearly the entire country is forced to buy crates of bottled water for drinking and cooking. Poor maintenance and mismanagement by the ministry and its labyrinth of regional water agencies are a major part of the problem. A 2011 study conducted by one of the governments engineers found that nearly 50 percent of water in the network is lost because of outdated infrastructure and leaking pipes. Some aqueducts are more than 100 years old; Beirut’s main pumping station was built in 1896 and cannot be expanded.

A cave revealed by roadbuilding related to dam construction indicates the porousness of the rock that will underlie the lake created by the dam. Multiple reports have found that much of the water that will be stored is likely to seep into the earth.

Image: Habib Battah

“Why don’t they spend a few million dollars and repair the pipes?” asks Noujaim. He and other experts believe a series of small dams, wells and lakes would serve as a more sustainable solution. “These people care about selling big projects, even if they don’t work. They care about money. You are dealing with Ali Baba.”

After the technical presentations, the press conference took a decidedly political turn as Bassil was introduced to much fanfare. The dam project will create an annual state revenue gain of some $180 million, Bassil said, though he did not reference the $100 million environmental cost Gicome calculated.

Known for his off-the-cuff remarks, Bassil dismissed concerns about the fault lines running beneath the dam, saying, “If it’s seven on the Richter scale, then who cares? All of Beirut will be gone anyway.”

Government-hired experts had earlier claimed the dam’s concrete structure would help protect against earthquakes and that disaster is unlikely. “Only 12 dams have been ruptured in the past,” said a French expert working with Khatib & Alami.

“If we are talking about environmental impact, this is over; it’s done.”

Bassil is famous for promising during his term as energy and water minister 24-hour electricity in Lebanon by 2015. (He also promised, during his stint as telecom minister, fiber-optic internet by 2010.) With blackouts worse than ever this summer and internet speeds in Lebanon still among the world’s slowest, the hashtag #BlameBassil has periodically trended as the population complains on social media about public service failures.

Though Bassil has been appointed minister of foreign affairs, he maintains a frequent presence at events related to the Jannah Dam. At the hotel press conference, he touted the project as a pillar of “strategic national interest” and security and spoke in conspiratorial tones when describing opposition to the dam.

“What is this reason that a state … two-and-a-half years after starting a project, needs to stop it? Bassil asked, throwing his hands in the air. “Cutting down a tree? That an earthquake could happen? An old study? Every day they are creating reasons to stop the dam. What makes all of these concerns lack value? One thing: politics. We spent $100 million, and we have to stop. Why? So someone can have fun?”

Bassil painted his party as a victim of political sabotage, singled out, he says, for abuses that others get away with, such as rampant illegal logging or polluting landfills. Forest fires, he argues, decimate 14 percent of Lebanese trees annually. “Now they are mad about 5,000 trees? Let the environment minister go chase after those [who are] logging trees,” he suggested, to rousing applause from the conference audience. “If we are talking about environmental impact, this is over; it’s done,” he said. “The trees have been cut; the site of the dam has been excavated. If there was environmental impact, it happened already.”

The deep commitment to harnessing water and dam building in Lebanon far predates Bassil and his coalition. The notion that Lebanese rivers flowing to the Mediterranean are wasted dates back to the French mandate period: The precolonial water management system, wrote Riachi in an op-ed for Beirut newspaper paper Al-Akhbar, “was judged too archaically managed by the locals and needed to be modernized by a good-willed colonizing power.” This notion was extended during the 1950s, when American engineers first proposed the Jannah Dam as part of diplomacy efforts at the height of the Cold War.

Today, Lebanon is embarking on $1.9 billion worth of future dam projects, many of them supported by loans from international lending organizations, such as the World Bank.

After nearly two centuries of continuous cultivation, Abu Akars strawberry fields are among the last tended crops in Adonis Valley.

Image: Habib Battah

In the hills overlooking Jannah, Andrade Gutierrez has set up dozens of mobile homes for its engineers in the picturesque mountain village of Kartaba. The firm is celebrated for creating jobs and bringing traffic to local business. In the town’s main square, the windows of offices rented by the company are covered with decals showcasing its projects; a giant rendering of the Jannah Dam is spread across an entire storefront.

Down below in Jannah, however, farmer Abu Akar is bent on giving Andrade Gutierrez hell. He regularly chucks rocks at the passing dump trucks because, he says, in addition to the destruction of the valley, they operate on Sundays in contravention of Lebanese law. His sister parks her Jeep strategically on the narrow road leading to the site to obstruct traffic flow. But it is a lonely battle.

“No one is going to move us from here. I won’t leave even for $100 million.”

He points to where his neighbors used to live. All that remains are three stone houses on a hillside, nestled amid a handful of oak and olive trees. They are an island of the past surrounded on all sides by newly carved gravel construction roads. Abu Akar says about 100 villagers more than half the town have vacated, as their homes were flattened. About eight families received sums of around $80,000 each, he says.

“What will they do with that? Buy a small apartment and then what?” He vows to stay despite the enormous dam wall that is set to be built only a few hundred yards from his home and remaining fields, eclipsing the bounty of sunlight that shines down on his greenhouses: “No one is going to move us from here. I won’t leave even for $100 million.”

Abu Akar walks up to a home built of roughly cut boulders, with a porch made of straw and tree branches. Its former occupants, his great-grandparents, are buried under a slab of tombs around the back, near a one-room church with a dozen dusty pews. (Abu Akar says his great-great-grandfather was the first to settle in Jannah, in the 1820s.) Inside, under a chandelier, hangs a fading portrait of John the Baptist wearing a gold crown as he pours water over a half-robed Jesus, knee-deep in another river, the River Jordan. Outside the church, a cast-iron bell is propped up by a piece of decayed wood wedged between two gnarled olive trees. The inscription on the bell says it’s from 1885.

A bell hung between two olive trees outside a local church bears an inscription that dates it to 1885.

Image: Habib Battah

Just beyond Abu Akar’s greenhouses are vast bulldozed plains. He surveys the construction site. Once densely forested mountainsides have been shaved haphazardly, as if buzzed by a giant electric razor. Toward the center of the site lies a mound of bulldozed branches and tree trunks piled a dozen feet high, as if mauled in a natural disaster.

“Look at what they have done,” Abu Akar says, pointing to a large splintered tree stump. “They didn’t even cut them down properly.”

The image seems to be at odds with a tree-replanting program put forward by government contractor Khatib & Alami to uproot and move thousands of the trees that needed to be cleared for the reservoir basin. Mountainsides have been reduced to loose sediment. Rockslides from the highest peaks of the excavation are evident throughout, particularly in the V-shaped section where the dam structure will be erected. Bubbly limestone facades are exposed in multiple sections of the construction area. Abu Akar says he witnessed water being pumped out of the project’s tunnel excavation, casting further doubt on the state’s claims of “excellent” rock integrity.

Abu Akar still has a few crops in the construction area but says he can’t bring himself to collect them: “I dont have a heart to go inside. I’ll cry if I go there. It was the most beautiful valley in the world.”

He changes the subject and puts on a face of defiance mixed with sarcasm.

“It’s all business; everyone wants to fill his pockets,” he says. “They make themselves out to be leaders, but they are worth the sole of my shoe.”

This article originally published at TakePart here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2016/08/13/jannah-dam-lebanon/

Posting about your workout on Facebook is a sign of narcissism

Posting about your workout routine on Facebook could mean you’re a narcissist, a new study says.
Image: Getty Images

If you post about your CrossFit or yoga routine on Facebook, you’re probably a narcissist with a deep-seated need for outside validation, a new study says.

A survey from researchers at Brunel University London spotted by Business Insider found that the topics Facebook users choose to post about are influenced by their personality traits.

People who are predisposed to narcissism more frequently post about their achievements and that extends to achievements at the gym.

“Narcissists also wrote more status updates about their diet and exercise routine, suggesting that they use Facebook to broadcast the effort they put into their physical appearance,” the researchers wrote.

Those kinds of posts also tend to get more likes, feeding the vicious cycle of validation.

On the other hand, people with low self-esteem are more likely to post about their boyfriends or girlfriends.

The data came from 555 Facebook users who completed online surveys about their personality traits.

So next time you see, or post, a CrossFit update, remember the personality traits behind it.

Read more: http://mashable.com/2016/08/13/facebook-posters-narcissists/

Ohio boy tried to sell toy for food, police say

(CNN)A 7-year-old boy in Ohio tried to sell his toy dog to get money for food, police in Franklin said.

“We heard about the boy from a concerned man who came into the police station and said there was a small child carrying a stuffed animal in a busy section of Franklin,” Franklin Police Officer Steve Dunham said of the incident August 7.
    When officers went to the area, Dunham spotted the boy in front of a pharmacy and got out of his car to speak with him. The boy was really nervous at first, Dunham told CNN.
    “I think he thought he would get in trouble,” he said. “He told me he was hungry and was trying to get money for food.”
    Chief Russ Whitman told CNN the boy said he had not eaten in several days.


    While other officers went to the child’s home, Dunham took the boy to a fast food restaurant and the two had dinner together.
    The officers who went to investigate the boy’s home reported it “was in deplorable condition and there were other children there,” Dunham said, adding that they found garbage and liquor bottles everywhere, and there was a strong smell of cat urine.
    Four other boys — ages 11, 12, 15 and 17 — also lived in the house.
    The parents, who were home at the time, were each charged with five counts of child neglect, Whitman said. They pleaded not guilty in court August 9 and have a pretrial conference scheduled for September, Lt. Brian Pacifico said.
    “I’m very proud of my officers for what they did, but officers across the nation go above and beyond every single day,” Whitman said. “We just happened to be put in the limelight. You can find stories like this everywhere with police officers every day. That’s why we get into this business, to help people.”
    Child Protective Services contacted another family member to pick up the boys.
    The 7-year-old watched cartoons at the police station with a dispatcher for a few hours until a family member picked him up, Dunham said.
    The boys’ parents were not jailed, but the children remain in the care of relatives, according to Franklin Police.
    St. Vincent De Paul at St. Mary’s Church in Franklin is organizing a donation drive to raise money for the family, according to Whitman.
    Franklin is north of Cincinnati, in southwestern Ohio.

    Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/13/us/ohio-boy-sells-toy-for-food/index.html

    Thousands march in Peru to protest violence against women

    Protest follows complaints by womens groups of lenient sentences given to perpetrators

    Thousands of people marched in Perus capital on Saturday to protest violence against woman and what they say is the indifference of the judicial system.

    The march, which brought together activists, artists, politicians and citizens, ended at Limas palace of justice.

    The protest follows complaints by womens groups of lenient sentences given to perpetrators.

    President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski took part in the march along with first lady Nancy Lange.

    In the march we are going to ask for facilities for women to denounce violence because abuse flourishes in an environment where complaints cannot be made and the blows are absorbed in silence and this is not how it should be, said Kuczynski.

    Mariana Rodriguez-P. (@maritaerrepe) August 13, 2016

    President #PPK from #PERU supports #NiUnaMenos #NotOneLess (via @lamula) pic.twitter.com/lcDwPC7HLj

    Perus march follows similar protests against gender violence in other Latin American countries, including Argentina and Brazil, held under the slogan #NiUnaMenos #NotOneLess.

    Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/14/thousands-march-in-peru-to-protest-violence-against-women

    The technology behind bitcoin could change global finance

    Journalist Martin Wolf, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde, British Finance Minister George Osborne, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Governor of the Bank of Japan Haruhiko Kuroda and Ivory Coast-born French Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam attend a session of the World Economic Forum annual meeting on January 23, 2016 in Davos.
    Image: fabrice coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

    Bitcoin may not change the world on its own, but the technology that runs the virtual currency very well could.

    That’s what the World Economic Forum determined in a report released Friday. The group, best known for its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, includes various members of the global financial elite. A wide range of banking, consulting and financial executives from Deloitte, JP Morgan Chase, Deutsche Bank, Barclays and other firms contributed to the yearlong project.

    “Our findings suggest this technology has the potential to ‘live-up to the hype’ and reshape financial services, but requires careful collaboration with other emerging technologies, regulators, incumbents and additional stakeholders to be successful,” the report said.

    The crowdsourced blockchain technology that powers bitcoin could create a new financial services infrastructure for everything from payment systems to trade finance.

    Blockchain, also known as distributed ledger technology, is the secure database that records all bitcoin transactions and allows them to occur. While it’s secure, it doesn’t need to be centrally controlled. That’s the main innovation that the World Economic Forum thinks could change financial services worldwide.

    The developments in financial services would all be behind the scenes, invisible to consumers. But these advances have the potential to make financial services faster and cheaper.

    Over the past three years, $1.4 billion has been invested in blockchain technology, the report said. It also projected that 80 percent of banks would start blockchain products by 2017.

    This report, the New York Times said, is a big step toward legitimizing the technology behind bitcoin in the financial mainstream.

    Read more: http://mashable.com/2016/08/12/bitcoin-blockchain-world-economic-forum/