DoomwatchTM vs. Timesizing®

Collapse stories - Sept. 16-30, 1999 (Sep. 16 at bottom)
[Commentary] ©1999 Philip Hyde, The Timesizing Wire, Box 622, Cambridge MA 02140 USA (617) 623-8080

9/29/99  2 "ticklers from the '20s" - reminders of Depression warning signs from bygone days -
  1. Stock market makes like a yo-yo - Dow drops 222 before surprise late rebound, closing down just 27, by Kimberley Blanton, Boston Globe, C2.
    [Historically, there's always lots of market volatility in the lead-in to crash and depression, sort of like the seismic jiggles before a big earthquake or volcanic eruption.]

  2. Gold soars $28, to $308, in biggest rally in 2 decades, by Jonathan Fuerbringer, C14.
    [In times of uncertainty, people flee to gold.  And oolala - here's another omen for the superstitious (which we, of course, are not) - "Fuerbringer" is German for fire-bringer.  Shades of  "But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth?  For He is like a refiner's fire..."  from Händel's Messiah.  Hey, the turn of a millennium is like a gigantic Hallowe'en - we might as well have fun with it!
    [The Messiah quote is from Malachi (3:2) , the last book in the Old Testament, right before the "revolution" of the New Testament, which many would like to think was a revolution of peace and love, but that finesses verses like Matt. 10:34, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword" and 35-36, "For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household." So much for family values in revolutionary times. But then, we didn't need a Messiah to set in-law against in-law. In some Native American tribes, conversation between in-laws was actually completely tabooed.]
9/26 Germany's problem is Europe's problem, by Kenneth Gilpin, NYT, s.3, p.7.
The classic "German problem" has been how to tether the country's economic and military interests within its own borders. Now, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is wrestling with a different German problem: the Government is running out of money.   To deal with that, Mr. Schroeder has proposed [some "reforms" in terms of] big cuts in spending coupled with less generous pension benefits and welfare payments.  The ["reform"] proposals are not sitting well with the citizenry of what has been the Continent's most important, vibrant economy.
[But who cares about the numerous, powerless, long-term oriented citizenry when a few, powerful, short-term oriented investors come on the scene? - ]
How it turns out is a matter of some importance to investors, because in many respects Germany represents a test case of how other countries in the European Union, facing the same problems, may address the rising costs of social democracy [such as the rise from today's burdening each employee with supporting 1/3 of one pensioner's costs to supporting the whole of one pensioner's costs] in the next few years....
[Notice here first the linguistic skewing of the problem (this article appears in the Investing section) to sound like each employee has roughly equal ability to support pensioners, and a roughly equal tax bite for doing so.  In reality, the concentration of income and wealth is a major factor in Germany as everywhere else, though of course much less extreme than in the USA, so some "employees" (top executives, for example) have a much greater ability to support pensioners (some without even noticing it) and due to graduated income&wealth taxes, a much greater utilization of that ability.
[Notice second that despite VW's dramatic leadership in the area of worksharing (aka timesizing) instead of downsizing, Germany still doesn't "get" the power, centrality, or necessity (unless you like our usual alternatives of war and plague) of the worksharing strategy. Here's the chain of reasoning. The only way to get government out of the charity business is to reduce the need for charity. ...By making self-support much much easier and more universal. ...By reducing the workweek and "squeezing" the natural market-demanded employment "out" onto every adult, regardless of age. This effectively redistributes retirement from the arbitrarily defined "elderly" on a once-a-life basis, to all adults on a once-a-week or even once-a-day basis. And this a clear prerequisite for really mining the potential of the Human Genome Project to yield "voluntary mortality" aka optional immortality. Because if people past a certain age are always going to be a burden on the young, you will always have a huge natural constituency against the Human Genome Project and its ultimate goal. See today's (9/26's) first glimmer of hope.]

9/25 Trapped by the bubble - Alan Greenspan's bubble nightmare, The Economist weekly (London magazine), cover story, p.17.
[This interesting editorial brings us face to face with the primitive state of our current economic theory and policy at the highest levels. It is about on par with the surgeons in the Civil War, who had only two choices: they could either let the wounded leg continue to fester with gangrene, or they could amputate the leg. It's gone past the stage where bleeding the patient would help, since the patient has already lost a lot of blood, and by the Civil War, the cure of bleeding had already passed into medical history anyway. But in the case of the primitive state of current economic theory, we have an even more bizarre overlying layer of difficulty. Namely, much of current theory denies that the patient is wounded at all, let alone suffering a dangerously gangrenous leg.] When The Economist described America's economy as a bubble in April 1998 and advised Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve's chairman, to raise interest rates to pop it, many people dismissed our warnings.
[This would not be a "clean dismissal" of the bubble diagnosis tied, as it was, to the kind of mega-traumatic cure they're advising. What Federal Reserve chairman wants to be known as the trigger man for the biggest depression in history? And how many people, whether or not they're invested in the bubble, want to accept such a diagnosis as God's Truth when the recommended cure looks worse than the disease? With only two medicines in his black bag (rates: up or down) and the evident lack of creativity recumbent in the advisers (the editors of The Economist), The Economist would have done better to advise Greenspan to "pull a Coolidge" and quit before "le déluge." At least then they'd have gotten a cleaner reaction to their diagnosis.]
Today, the Dow is even higher than it was, the economy is enjoying robust growth and the core rate of consumer-price inflation has fallen to a 33-year low.
[Three indicators totally irrelevant to the economic deep structure.]
So were we wrong? Sorry to be party-poopers, but America's economy still looks horribly bubble-like [and] a collapse on Wall Street remains the biggest threat to the world economy....
[You know, we really don't believe The Economist editors are thinking too clearly, because they admit here that the popping of the bubble aka a collapse on Wall Street is the biggest threat to the world economy, and yet they advise Greenspan to trigger it. Hel -lo-o! And instead of proceeding in a straightforward fashion and presenting the reasons why they analyze the situation as a bubble, they get all convoluted and rhetorical - they pretend their opponents are on the defensive and successively surrendering ground, in a sort of cascade. But actually, this leaves The Economist presenting very their smallest argument in order to prove their biggest point (but from the weak position of trying to prove a negative = that there isn't a sustainable boom), and arguing at greater and greater length on two smaller and smaller points. The Economist needs a lesson in K.I.S.S. = "keep it simple, sweetheart."]
Consider the three most common criticisms of the idea that there is a financial bubble.
[Only the first is such an argument. The other two assume there's a bubble and criticize two aspects of The Economist's prescription.]
First, it is argued, higher share prices are justified by improved fundamentals.... It is, in truth, impossible to know whether share prices are overvalued right now.
[Another rhetorical device = an initial copout.]
But over the past year or so, evidence of a bubble has mounted with every sign of excess elsewhere in the economy.
[And here we go at last - ]

These are all classic symptoms of a bubble.
["All"? They've only cited three, and how about some examples from "classical" bubbles in support of this assertion!
[But no further argument is forthcoming on this 1st and most basic of questions. Instead, we go through a rhetorical cascade. The Economist's imaginary opponents are made to successively grant key pieces of The Economist's position but argue against progressively smaller parts of it - (2) even if there is a bubble, central banks (especially the U.S. Fed) can do nothing about it and (3) even if central banks can do something about it, raising interest rates is not that thing.]
What about the second objection: that even if shares are overvalued [i.e., there is a bubble], why should the Fed worry? America's inflation rate is low, so there seems no case for higher interest rates.
[Note the unquestioning acceptance of the Fed's mandate as only to fight inflation, although in the wake of the Depression, the Fed was set up primarily to fight unemployment, with inflation as a "Yeah, that too." "Congress spelled this out in the Employment Act of 1946 and again in the Humphrey Hawkins Full Employment & Balanced Growth Act of 1978. The Fed has largely ignored the [full employment part of its dual] mandate since the stagflation of the 1970s" when the "seesaw" between unemployment and inflation broke and both rocketted upward. Many economists took that as a license to give up on fighting unemployment and fixate on fighting inflation, viewing even a little of it as too much. In the early 90s(?) when it seemed that anything below 6% unemployment would "trigger inflation" (as if unemployment triggers inflation rather than the onrushing concentration of wealth), the Fed began to actually FOSTER 6% unemployment. This was called the NAIRU (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment). As the 90s rolled by and it seemed that unemployment could dip below 6% and even below 5% "without triggering inflation", the Fed with great reluctance stopped fostering 6% unemployment by raising rates to stomp expansion every time unemployment dipped below 6% and then even 5%.
[Moreover, a really bizarre and breath-taking lowering of standards occurred some time in the 90s. The NAIRU came to define "full employment." In other words, the definition of "full employment" changed - it was no longer based on labor statistics (employment) but on monetary statistics (inflation). But the inflation index, despite the equally bizarre assumption that it stems mainly from wage raises ("wage-push inflation"), is actually based exclusively on the behavior of the prices of a "marketbasket" of goods and services that ordinary people might buy - in other words, not people in the top income brackets where so much wealth has been concentrating. This means that two or three other areas of rising figures (price rises in luxuries, including stocks, and consumer debt) have not been closely monitored or reported as a cause for alarm. The historical data and quotes in the above paragraph are taken from "Full employment won't send prices sky-high" by Aaron Bernstein in the 10/18/99 Business Week, p.166. It is unsettling to realize that Bernstein even thinks of the "full employment" is his title as entirely an artifact of monetary criteria, to wit, the lowest level of unemployment that will not trigger inflation (no matter how high that level may be).
[The widening income gap and the disconnect between today's and historic P/E ratios and the tolerance of much higher levels of debt of all kinds (consumer, but also corporate and government, and metaphorically, prisons with their philosophy of waiting idly to repay "debts to society") are direct results of this weakening change in the prevailing definition of full employment. Labor is weak, unions are toast, wages are stagnant, prisons are bulging, little is heard from the depressed small-city and rural areas outside the prosperous-looking SMSAs like the Silicon Valley and Boston's Technology Highway. And as so many times before in history, the poor and middle classes have been unwittingly drafted into the process of their own relative impoverishment. Employees now accept a degree of job insecurity and economic anxiety that hasn't been seen since the first third of this century. (The response of many, as the cover of Boston Globe Parade magazine has it on 10/17/99, is "abandoning professional success and material comforts to become ministers, priests and rabbis.") Management has gradually and unwittingly become increasingly spoiled, ill-trained and misguided and has turned the workplace into a surreal torture chamber of stress, as Scott Adams points out in his Dilbert strip day after day. The likes of Chainsaw Dunlap are held up as national heroes for their tough protection of shareholders' (i.e., speculators') rights. Our politicians have become unscrupulous fundraisers. And our governments have become scandal-rocked do-nothings. Many of them can't even manage the basics of passing a budget any more.
[There is another area of slippage here, the definition of unemployment itself, for purposes of the unemployment rate. And the Economist does seem to be manifesting an unquestioning acceptance of America's cosmetic "low unemployment" rate. Note also their unquestioning assumption that the only way to fight inflation is by raising interest rates. Or maybe they are just accepting the limitations of our current dark age of economic theory - that rates are the only way known today by TPTB (the powers that be).]
But inflation has been held down by many one-off factors - such as a strong dollar [what's "one-off" about that?] and, thanks to weak demand in the rest of the world, low commodity and import prices - which may already be going into reverse.
[Why aren't they identifying low prices and weak demand as "classic symptoms" of depression?]
But more important, central banks should not ignore another sort of inflation: in the prices of assets, such as shares and property.
["Ignore"? Under our prevailing, primitive economic theory where central banks can completely ignore employment issues such as hidden unemployment and marginalized employment, it's their only purpose to fight wage-push and market-basket (or "consumer-price") inflation and promote, by ignoring or even rejoicing in, all other value increases (we would say "resulting" increases) such as executive-compensation-push, luxury-basket, and stock rises such as are here suddenly being spun negatively as "asset inflation." What a revolution! The conservative Economist magazine suddenly begins to think that maybe there's such a thing as inflation in the stock market! Let's listen further to this realization of theirs.]
Our survey of the world economy in this week's issue argues that many central banks have focused too narrowly on consumer-price inflation. Excessive rises in asset prices can be as dangerous as conventional inflation. [Why?] Sudden surges in wealth can, for example, encourage excessive borrowing, which, when borrowers are forced to readjust their finances, can cause a painful hard landing.
[What if the surge in wealth isn't sudden? What if it's gradual, but still highly concentrated? It's amazing to us that The Economist and other commentators can discuss every aspect of the superficial levels of the world situation without ever breaking through to the deep structure, where we have a gross and growing global labor glut that has happened so gradually that, just as in the 1920s, most of us haven't noticed it. It manifests in an incredible concentration of wealth - and debt of course, because debt is the other major mechanism of concentrating wealth besides stocks. Stocks go up and up because there's nowhere else to quickly put all this newfound wealth resulting from the decreasing leverage of the rank and file. So many resumes pour in in response to want ads that employers get spoiled and lazy and drop training programs. Then if the slightest bottleneck occurs in their access to exactly the skills they need for the low wage they want to pay, they complain loudly about "labor shortage" (meaning just spot skill shortage) and lobby fiercely for more visas to bring in cheap pre-trained labor from overseas. In the past, this "default" labor glut (economic Malthusianism) has mainly been corrected only by catastrophes such as the Black Death or total war. The big exception is that between 1776 and 1940, a controlled "artificial catastrophe" was used to cut the glut, and that was reducing worktime per person (mainly shortening the workweek), which had the effect of rationing the over-availability of labor to the erstwhile overwhelmed job market. Thus wages were kept in rough balance and a "black hole" economy of astronomically concentrated wealth did not develop. But we digress.] ....The third popular criticism of our bubble thesis: that [even if there is a bubble and even if central banks can do something about it] it is too risky, both economically and politically, for a central bank to prick a bubble by raising interest rates. It is hard to tell when and by how much rates should be raised. And the Fed, like other central banks, has a mandate only to deliver stability in consumer prices [boy, they have forgotten about the second mandate = to fight unemployment - guess they're disregarding northern England]. If the Fed deliberately tried to push down share prices, it would quickly come under fierce attack.
[It's really The Economist that's "trapped by the bubble" or rather by their lack of creativity in addressing the bubble. Either doing nothing or popping the bubble is not much of a choice. How about solidifying the bubble?!
[How do we solidify the bubble? Same way we did between 1776 and 1940 - we ration the availability of labor to the job market and harness market forces to raise wages and centrifuge wealth. Of course, this would take a big about-face on The Economist's part. They'd have to stop dumping on France for cutting the workweek. It would mean some levelling down from stock market highs, particularly in the Net stocks, but the dynamism it would promote in the economy as the people with time and not money averaged out with those with money and no time would minimize the downside. One developed approach to this would be Timesizing.]

9/25 Higher unemployment in Brazil, by Simon Rivero, NYT, B2.
...to 8.3% in August from 8.1% in July, despite a gradual reduction of interest rates by the central bank intended to stimulate economic activity. The news came a day after the central bank in Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, cut its base rate for the 11th time this year, to 19% from 19.5%.
[A 19% base rate?! No wonder they even have high official unemployment! Maybe they're still paranoid about the hyperinflation they had a few years back. They should be sidelining interest rates to the backburner of superficiality where they belong and fighting inflation by massive dynamic automatic grassroots reinvestment, e.g., by reducing their income/wealth gap by drawing a line on money concentration in the form of an enforced maximum workweek, and also by harnessing volunteerism and the charitable impulse by requiring the reinvestment of overtime profits and earnings in training and hiring.
[Then they can fight unemployment by dynamically determining the fluctuating level of the enforced maximum workweek according to the unemployment rate - as long as unemployment is too high (a referendum call), the level of the workweek gradually comes down, just 1/2 or 1 hour a month at the most (another referendum call). Then when unemployment has come down to target levels, the workweek (and implicitly, the amount of overtime to be reinvested in training and hiring), is set to vary inversely/homeostatically (and still very gradually to give everyone plenty of adjustment time) with unemployment. If unemployment goes up, the workweek comes down (and overtime goes up). If unemployment comes down, the workweek goes back up (and overtime comes back down).]

9/24 Tech stocks put markets into tailspin - Dow dives 205 while Nasdaq plummets 108, by Steven Wilmsen, Boston Globe, E1.
A jittery stock market dived late yesterday as investors fled technology stocks after a Microsoft Corp. executive [president Steven Ballmer] said a "gold rush" mentality has ridiculously overpriced such shares....
[This type of story, common these days, could be from the newspapers of 1928 or 1929. But no telling how long it will take for a much huger market to take itself down.]

9/23 Fed report says economy keeps expanding, Reuters via NYT, C14.
[But then that's what Greenspan would certainly have said in 1928 as well, given his measures and blinders. And probably in September, 1929. And possibly on Wed., Oct. 23, 1929, the day before Black Thursday.]

9/22  6 "negazingers" -

  1. [Another leap in our already record trade deficit.]
    Trade deficit rise provokes concern of risk to dollar - $25.2B July imbalance deflates idea of help from world economic revival - The negative side of Americans' hunger for imported goods, by David Sanger, NYT, frontpage.
    [More accurately, the negative side of CEOs' simplistic obsession with free trade.]

  2. ["Slaves love their chains?" Dept.]
    The new politics of inequality - Will candidates care about the wealth gap if the voters don't?, by Alan Wolfe, NYT op ed, A27.
    [One big preliminary question - when campaign financing is so insanely big-money-invaded, do voters ever even get a chance to care about the wealth gap? Candidates now have so much vicarious investment in the wealth gap, they do everything they can to keep the voters from even thinking about the wealth gap, let alone caring about it.]

  3. ["Nothing to fear but fear itself" Dept.]
    U.S. to use lab for more study of bioterrorism, by Judith Miller, NYT, frontpage.
    Alarmed at what the Clinton Adminstration views as the growing threat of biological terrorisim to America's food supply, the Agriculture Dept. is seeking money to turn the Plum Is. [NY] Animal Disease Center...into a top security laboratory where some of the most dangerous diseases known to man or beast can be studied....
    [Here we go again. Remember how much of the Cold War our own dear paranoics absolutely evoked? As if we need this BS boondoggle when we already have genetically tinkered foods and 'mad cow disease'. Step right this way for your Scrapieburger!]

  4. ["How bad thing have gotten" Dept.]
    Mental health workers strike over [measly 8-mo's of] job security, by Diane Lewis, Boston Globe, D5.
    About 70 therapists and social workers walked off jobs yesterday at 5 offices run by the North Suffolk Mental Health Assoc. in a dispute over job security. Union staff walked out...after the agency refused to guarantee that there would be no layoffs until May.... "All we are asking for is 8 months," said Tom Higgins, union staff coordinator. "...Employees said they would forgo raises in return for a commitment of no layoffs or program closings for 8 months. The agency said it would only agree to 4 months...."
    [Pathetic. Sounds like a job for Captain Timesizing! Hey, the French are using a nationwide cut to 35 hours/week to create jobs and prevent layoffs - why can't we?! Lots of health facilities have already been doing it, such as Brockton Hospital (scan down to Brockton Hosp. on our case studies page.]

  5. [20th century 'dark age']
    Century of darkness - As in Conrad's tale ["Heart of Darkness"], the heart of history is still savagery, by Rose Moss, Bos Globe op ed, A27.
    ...mass killings in Kosovo and East Timor... 12m were killed [in Belgian Congo], 12m by the Nazis, more than 30m by Stalin, Armenians and Greeks by Turks, Cambodia, Rwanda.... We have lived in a century of genocide....
    [And we will stillperversely need war and genocide to kill off surplus labor until we start sharing the shrinking, technology-attritioned work in a systematic, non-haphazard way.]
    Absolute power tends to corrupt most absolutely when there is no one present to see, report, show, and criticize.
    [Well in that case, the following item means we're in trouble.]
  6. Executive privilege vs. our right to know - Ford's pardon of Nixon set a precedent, by Peter Wallison, NYT op ed, A27.
    ...[for Clinton's] clemency for members of the F.A.L.N. [for example]....
9/20 Our exceptionally violent nation - No other developed country matches our record of killings,
by E.J. Dionne Jr., Boston Globe, A13.
[And next year, we'll have the world's record prison population (story 3/15/99). Oh sure, we're still the greatest. Sure we are.]

[An unheeded HBS warning - and other omens.]
9/19  A four-way mirror, by David Warsh, Bos Globe, G1.
...In a famous article in 1980 - "Managing Our Way to Economic Decline" - Robert Hayes and William Abernathy of the Harvard Business School [HBS] identified excessive analytic detachment and pervasive short-term thinking as the problems....
[And did anybody change their ways, e.g., HBS?  No-o-o. The proof?]
...In the nation's business schools, a wholesale rethinking of management accounting has taken place.... Here the most promising approach is known as the "Balanced Scorecard." [It's] the brainchild of Robert Kaplan and David Norton....  Kaplan...moved in 1983 to Havard Business School.  [In 1984] he published "Yesterday's Accounting Undermines Production" in the Harvard Business Review....  Art Schneiderman, [in 1990] elaborated...his company's experience with a "corporate scorecard"....  Finally in 1996 Kaplan and Norton published "The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action." They proposed a series of measures and objectives organized along four quite [diverse] lines....
• The financial perspective
[no mention of employees]
• Customer perspective [no mention of employees]
• Internal-business-process perspective [no mention of employees!]
• Learning and growth perspective [at last, a mention of employees, but only as an afterthought to technology. Let's zoom in/fractel down on this paragraph. It speaks volumes, but only between the lines...]
Learning and growth perspective. Businesses must continually be on the lookout for new technologies and capabilities. What is the likelihood that the staff will keep up with new developments wherever they occur? This is the domain of motivation, empowerment, and alignment of incentives.
[So technology does not follow and facilitate employees. Au contraire, "staff" follows and tries to "keep up" with technology. And management is not so vulgar as to want staff to keep up, oh no. Management, with the "excessive analytic detachment" that HBS was slamming in 1980, asks only "What is the likelihood that the staff will keep up...?" Does management give, or even want to give, staff a reason to keep up? Not exactly. Management would not be so vulgar as to simply give or admit to wanting anything. Instead, a flat "fact" is laid out: "This is the domain of motivation, empowerment, and alignment of incentives." And the whole operation sounds like a mechanical manipulation, hope-raising but buzzword-poofed "empowerment" notwithstanding. So to answer their question, "What is the likelihood that the staff will keep up?" we'd say "Low", because at bottom, it's real tough to motivate suicide.]

9/18/99 Renewed Japanese spending buoys luxury-goods makers, by John Tagliabue, NYT, B2.
[Luxury spending is not "renewed spending," because luxury spending never stops. In fact, since depression is a crisis of compacted wealth, luxury spending may creep up as depression intensifies. But this is not "renewed Japanese spending" for a second reason - it's not even getting spent in Japan!...]
Borne aloft by a revival of Japanese consumption of luxury goods, Europe's leading manufacturers of luxury products have reported strongly improved sales and profits in the first half of the year....
[You'd think an island nation with a fortress mentality like Japan, especially starting from a narrower wage spread between workers and executives, would have an easier time sharing the wealth than egalitarian Europe or theoretically more egalitarian America. But after decades of being helped by its relatively recent emergence from feudalism, Japan is now being hurt. The feudal stage in social evolution is characterized by intense class stratification and consciousness, and the Japanese language itself is one of the most classist languages in the world, with different linguistic forms for speaking upwards or downwards in the social scale, and for speaking one or the other way across gender lines.]
The world's biggest maker of luxury goods, LVMH-Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton [phew!] of France, said yesterday that first-half net profits had soared 59%, to $374 million, on a 16% increase in sales to $3.7 billion.... It said sales to Japanese customers of Louis Vuitton leather goods and Moët & Chandon Champagne were particularly strong.
[Man, the French have it all - a national, enforced 35-hour workweek to deconcentrate work and wealth more than anywhere else on the planet, and the corner on luxury manufacturing to sail (sale?) through whatever woes wealth compaction brings down upon the rest of the world.]
Earlier this week, Gucci Group said second-quarter earnings had soared 87%, largely because of an 18% increase in sales in Japan.
A third major luxury goods maker, Hermès International, said its sales in Asia had risen 14%, helping push profits one-third in the first half of the year....
[The reporter, based on analysts' statements, goes on to further confuse consumer spending with luxury spending. But then analysts' certainly, and reporters probably, do better as messengers of good news, however forced, than bad.]

For earlier collapse stories, click on the desired date -

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  • Aug/98 and before.


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